Yahoo plans to significantly expand the number of people with access to its next-generation webmail service, which has been in test, or beta, mode for about one year.

Until now, the webmail service has been available to a limited number of people in the US and to all users in the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Canada and South Korea.

But starting today, Yahoo will roll it out to all users in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Italy, the Philippines, Singapore, Spain and Taiwan.

It will take about two weeks for Yahoo to complete this deployment, Yahoo spokeswoman Karen Mahon said. Yahoo plans to remove the beta tag from the new service "in the coming months", she said.

This new version is the largest overhaul of Yahoo's webmail service since its introduction in 1997. Unlike the current version, it works like a desktop application, eliminating the delays found on many other web-based applications.

Among its features are the ability to drag-and-drop messages into folders, a pane to preview the content of messages, the ability to have multiple message windows open and keyboard shortcuts to, for example, delete or create messages. It has an integrated RSS reader. The service's calendar tool can now present maps to appointments.

This new version extends the traditional webmail concept from a simple mailbox to a broader central information repository that not only handles email messages, but integrates RSS management, calendaring and instant messaging, and this makes it a significant upgrade, said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst.

Competition in the once languid webmail market heated up in April 2004 when Google launched its Gmail service. Since then, webmail providers such as Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL have been busy retooling their services, dramatically increasing storage capacity, sharpening spam and email filters and giving user interfaces extreme makeovers.

Much is at stake in the webmail wars, because the level of attachment users form with their email accounts is much higher than with other online services. A strong webmail service serves as a user-magnet for portals with other online services. Webmail services have also proved effective for advertising.