AOL tests standalone e-mail product

America Online is testing a standalone e-mail client that could set the stage for a features battle with Microsoft in the market for Internet-based communications software. Called "AOL Communicator," the new software bundles a beefed-up version of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and an address book with an e-mail client that mirrors Microsoft's popular Outlook application in appearance and features, according to a version of the software seen by CNET

The software comes with an identity manager that lets a person digitally sign and encrypt e-mails and instant messages, a function that would likely appeal to business users. The e-mail client also lets a person send and manage e-mail using different accounts, by forwarding messages from POP or IMAP (Internet message access protocol) e-mail servers.

AOL spokeswoman Catherine Corre confirmed the company is developing AOL Communicator but declined to comment on specifics, as the product is at an early testing stage.

Corre said AOL Communicator will target "heavy users of AIM and advanced users of e-mail," but would not say whether the company plans to charge for the software or whether it would be sold to companies or to AOL subscribers.

"It's a solution that's powerful and simple to use," Corre said. "It's trying to integrate AOL POP and IMAP e-mail experiences. But I think it's premature to make any comparisons with anything."

AOL's development efforts come as Microsoft prepares to release a major upgrade to its Exchange e-mail server software, set to launch in mid-2003. Developed under the codename Titanium, the upgrade is roughly timed to coincide with a face-lift for Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client. The company says these moves will together provide significant advances for its e-mail products.

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