America Online is heading for a totally new look with an old, classic name. "Casablanca", the next upgrade for America Online, promises to be slicker, more intuitive and loaded with Internet functionality.
America Online version 4.0 has been available for download as "beta" software since the first of this year. This means that it's still in the testing/development stages, but members can download the trial software for use at their own risk.
The new look to AOL 4.0 is more modern and a bit avant-garde, which leads one to believe that it's totally new and different, but it's generally the same AOL program that's been re-worked for an updated, more efficient look and feel.
Like all software upgrades these days, Internet integration seems to be the cornerstone of most improvements. You'll notice this immediately when you log onto America Online v4.0 for the first time, since the standard toolbar interface now includes a browser bar complete with a location box as well as Forward, Back and Find buttons.
The new toolbar can be easily customized to access your favorite areas, such as the New York Times or Slingo, with a single mouse click. To add a new icon to your AOL toolbar, simply drag and drop the Favorite Places heart onto the toolbar.
In the location box you can either type a URL, such as http://www.ceeprompt.com, or an AOL keyword such as "Chat" or "Members". Like other browsers, places you've visited, whether on the Internet or within AOL, go into a pull down menu that can be accessed quickly from the location box. Back, Forward and Home buttons allow you to navigate seamlessly between AOL and the Internet.
Regardless of the browser interface, realize that America Online is still not a direct Internet connection. Rather, Internet accessibility is a service that AOL offers to its members. Your connectivity to the Internet is tunneled through AOL's network, much slower and more limited than the services that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer.
Newly designed windows in AOL feature the 19 popular channels in a Channel Guide as a fixed menu in the extreme left of every feature window. This streamlines navigation from one area to another, such as Personal Finance to Sports, without returning to the traditional Channel window.
A terrific improvement is the ability to switch screen names without logging off America Online. If you have five users with five different screen names on your account, previously you'd have to exit AOL then log on again to activate the new screen name, which cumbersome and time-consuming. Now, it's just a simple mouse click and password to log on as a different user.
E-mail functionality has been improved again in this new version of America Online, almost to the point of being excessive. You can virtually create your own web pages as e-mail by adding backgrounds, graphics, and hypertext links to your messages, but they can only be viewed by other AOL users.
The most notable improvement to AOL 4.0 e-mail is the addition of a spell checker and grammar checker, which has been long overdue. Additionally members can now attach multiple files at once to mail messages instead of just one file at a time.
Those who enjoy the AOL chat features, will be pleased to learn that you can now express yourself even more vividly by changing the font formatting in your messages. Chat rooms now support bold, italics, underline, different fonts and font colors for text emphasis.
AOL users wishing to sample the new version of AOL can find the preview software using the keyword "Preview". A significant known glitch at this time, however, is an incompatibility with the Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser version 4.0.
This is curious since AOL uses Microsoft IE as its browser software, however it's version 3.02, which wreaks havoc with your system when it attempts to overwrite existing IE 4.0 files. America Online promises to correct this problem in the near future, but as of now, you'll be probably be blocked from downloading AOL 4.0 if you're using MS Internet Explorer 4.0.
All things considered, I think the 12 million users who now subscribe to America Online for $21.95 a month and send 95 million e-mail messages daily, will appreciate the improvements in version 4.0.
Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company,
Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached
by e-mail at email@example.com or
firstname.lastname@example.org or by
mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet