AOL is now publicly testing an enhanced webmail service for its subscribers and instant-messaging users.

The test, which started on Friday, includes an improved search tool for finding information stored in email messages, according to the AOL Beta website. The service is now integrated with the AOL Pictures photo-management service, allowing users to place pictures in messages.

After being an afterthought in online services for many years, webmail services have had a resurgence lately, thanks to increased competition in the space, triggered initially by the debut of Google's Gmail in 2004. Since then, users have benefitted from dramatically increased storage and continuous user interface improvements in webmail services from Yahoo, Microsoft and others.

The integration with AOL Pictures has been done both for messages users send as well as receive. Users who receive messages with embedded or attached photos will be able to save them directly from the webmail interface to AOL Pictures. Likewise, users will be able to insert photos from AOL Pictures into the body of the message they are composing, another option to simply attaching them as a file.

The improvements in the search functionality include the ability to search all text stored in an email account, instead of just searching by subject and sender, as well as the automatic highlighting of search terms.

When composing messages, users of Mozilla's Firefox browser and AOL's own Netscape browser will find new options for formatting text. The options include changing the font's type, colour and size, as well as the ability to underline, bold or italicise text. Meanwhile, the service gained a feature to save, with a single click, email text to the AOL Journals blog-publishing service.

To participate in the test, users must have an AOL or AIM account. AOL recommends that users have Windows 98, 2000 or XP Professional/Home with Internet Explorer 6.0 or above, Firefox 1.0 or above, or Netscape 8.0 or above. For Apple users, AOL recommends Mac OS X with Firefox 1.0.4 or above.