As the beta test of America Online 7.0 enters its fourth month, a clearer picture of what America Online Inc. intends for the final version of the browser/messaging software has begun to emerge.
While retaining the same basic look and feel of its predecessor, Version 6.0, AOL 7.0 will offer some minor usability improvements and some added features.
The most significant things about Version 7.0 are the improvements to the buddy list and instant messaging features. Highlights include a feature similar to AutoComplete in Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer, where AOL will offer suggestions for addressing instant messages based on the names in your address book.
On members buddy lists, "mini icons" are shown to the left of their screen name when they are online. Typically the icons are just a smaller version of their buddy icon, but some users will get special icons when they log on from a mobile device like an AOL Mobile Communicator or their cell phone. This feature will allow members to know when mobile devices are in use, as well as consider the size of the screen on mobile communications devices when sending messages.
Taking advantage of AOLs January merger with Time Warner, AOL 7.0 features a slew of new buddy icons, which are displayed in the bottom left-hand corner of instant message windows. Members will be able to select from a large collection of Looney Tunes and Harry Potter buddy icons in the next version.
AOL e-mail also gains some minor improvements in the latest version. To help reduce confusion for novice computer users, the familiar Internet e-mail "headers," which give the reader information about how the e-mail message was routed, are not automatically displayed. To view them, users will have to click a link for "Details."
In addition, AOL has increased the maximum allowed message size to 63KB, rather than automatically converting messages over 50KB to attachments, forcing users to download the message and open it in a word processor.
For threatening or junk e-mails, AOL has also simplified the process of notifying its Community Action Team, reducing it to just one click of "Notify AOL" rather than having to figure out which AOL department to forward the message to.
When reading messages from other AOL members, there is also some improved integration with instant messaging, such as allowing users to instantly add that member to their buddy list or address book, or view that members profile.
AOL has also made some improvements to the multimedia aspect of its software, particularly the high-speed AOL Plus content. When members sign on via a high-speed connection, whether its from AOL Plus DSL or from their office LAN, they will now begin to see the "Plus" high-speed content in a bar that is docked to the bottom of Windows. Previously, the high-speed content was displayed in an awkward "tower" in the lower right-hand corner of the AOL window. The content in the tower would update depending on what area of AOL you were browsing, but it appeared disconnected from the rest of the service.
Finally, the Welcome screen has some minor improvements and changes. The Local content on the welcome screen has been improved to allow members to input their ZIP code to receive local weather and advertisements. Previously, the local content was delivered by detecting which access number was used to connect to AOL, making users who connect via the Internet receive less personalized information.
The Welcome screen has also been moved to the top of the AOL window rather than the center of the screen, where it has been located since the first versions of AOL.
AOL 7.0 is currently in beta testing, accessible to AOL members at Keyword: Beta.