Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) America Online unit unveiled more upcoming enhancements to the free email service it launched a few short weeks ago. Today it announced a team-up with Web-based contact management firm Plaxo to give AIM Mail users greater control over their contacts and address books.

Here's a refresher on AOL's recent AIM Mail launch, which included lots of goodies for AOL subscribers and ordinary Web surfers alike: 2 GB of storage, a strong tie-in with the popular AOL Instant Messenger service, and the ability to store the information of 400 "buddies" -- AIM lingo for instant-messenger contacts.

Later this year, AIM Mail will add its newest features in a public beta. Thanks to Plaxo's technology, AIM Mail customers will gain a seriously pumped-up online address book. Users will be able to import their existing lists of AIM contacts, plus information from the address books of other Webmail services and third-party email programs like Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Outlook Express. Users who keep shuffling back and forth between multiple email accounts will doubtlessly welcome an easy way to import, manage, and centralize all their contacts.

Plaxo's tools will tell AIM Mail users when their Instant Messenger buddies are online, even if they're accessing AIM Mail through clients like Outlook Express. The new features will also allow users to store a wealth of other contact information, from text-messaging and Internet-phone contacts to old-school email addresses and phone numbers. For users concerned about privacy, Plaxo's technology allows individuals to control what information gets released to whom.

It goes without saying that Web-based rivals are hardly standing still. Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) recently announced more enhancements to its own free email offering. And Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) issued the shot heard 'round the Internet world more than a year ago, revolutionizing free email with its Gmail announcement. (At the time, giving away a gigabyte of free email storage sounded suspiciously like one of the company's famous April Fool's Daypranks.)

To distinguish itself from the competition, AOL is concentrating on the different ways people communicate. Address books and contact lists, the building blocks to networking and socializing online, can easily get too fragmented. As the Internet matures, and more users place greater importance on organizing and searching their information, streamlining Internet tasks to make them faster and more focused seems increasingly important. The email I received about today's announcement noted that in just five weeks, AIM Mail has racked up 1 million users with accounts. Of course, those early adopters' ultimate loyalty to the service remains to be seen.

It's interesting to watch AOL try to evolve with the changing times as its paying subscriber base dwindles. Some say that AOL's shooting itself in the foot with its recent initiatives, especially its moves to shutter some of the subscriber-only services that originally made it great. However, it's clear that AOL is proactively working to keep itself relevant on the ever-changing Internet. Its new Plaxo-enhanced features might just help it leverage its strengths and woo more traffic and loyalty to its services.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.