You can love America Online or hate it, but you can't ignore it. The service largely defines the Internet for roughly 25 million subscribers in the United States -- more than 17 percent of the online population and 8 percent of the population, period.
Until last fall, those numbers had kept going up and up. But since then, it's lost 1.5 million members to cheaper dial-up options and faster broadband connections.
The service's new "AOL 9.0 Optimized" software -- available in "preview" form to members with Windows 2000 or XP at the AOL keyword "upgrade" -- aims to give fleeing users cause to stick around. A full release for Win 98 or newer is due Friday.
The biggest changes here affect e-mail, long the dullest tool in the AOL shed.
Mail in AOL 9 still evaporates out of your inbox after a week, but you now get 20 megabytes of online mail storage per screen name, accessible from any copy of AOL 9. The update also adds a "Manage Mail" view that clearly presents your online and offline mail folders.
It doesn't, unfortunately, help you organize the messages you'll start to accumulate: You can't sort mail saved on AOL into different folders, nor can you filter incoming e-mail by its sender. The only screening option offered is the ability to block mail with designated words in the subject line -- a trick the spammers got wise to years ago.
For better mail management, you'll have to switch to the new AOL Communicator program. This free download (available for Win 2000 or newer, with a Mac OS X release due this fall, at the keyword "communicator") lets you access your AOL inbox as well as industry-standard mail accounts.
It provides basic filtering and sorting, if nothing on a par with what's in the Eudora or Outlook mail programs. It also throws in a souped-up AOL instant-messaging program, broadband-only Internet radio and a flashy interactive screen saver that scrolls headlines across your monitor.
Back in AOL 9, instant messaging gets a major upgrade, too. You can dress up your IM personality with a "SuperBuddy," a giggle-worthy icon that reacts to your chatter -- type "lol" (short for "laughing out loud"), and your SuperBuddy chuckles; "cool" causes it to put on sunglasses, and "XOXO" makes this little avatar smooch the screen.
The new "instant image" feature is less cute and more useful; it lets you and a friend easily flip through a set of photos without leaving the IM interface.