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People wearing sandwich boards and carrying placards declaring "The N is nigh" helped launch AOL UK's new subscription-free ISP Netscape Online. Scores of anonymous human billboards trudged around London today in the drizzle stopping only occasionally to be photographed by bemused tourists. Yet behind the glamour, today's launch is a public admission by AOL UK that it had to do something to counteract the tidal wave of subscription-free services that have swamped the UK. Speaking today Andreas Schmidt, president and CEO of AOL Europe stressed that Netscape Online should be regarded as another brand and not something to replace existing services. "[Netscape Online] is the next step in our multiple-brand strategy and provides the best services available to this market segment," he said. He also announced that the service would be distributed in 789 Woolworth stores as part of a deal with its parent Kingfisher plc, a move which allows AOL UK to take the service "direct to the high street for the first time". Netscape Online has all the hallmarks of the 100 or so subscription-free services currently operating in the UK. Aimed at young, "value-conscious" users who don't need anyone to hold their hand when they surf, the service will go live on 1 September. It will make its money partly from interconnect revenue and partly through ecommerce and advertising revenue. Calls to the telephone help line will cost 50p a minute and users will also be able to use Netscape Communicator instead of Microsoft Explorer to browse the Web and handle email. Of course, the real appeal for many users will be the reliability of using the AOL network to access the Net. "Netscape Online benefits from the both the power of the Netscape brand and the AOL's state-of-the-art infrastructure," said Schmidt. Unfortunately, Schmidt's enthusiasm was called into question by AOL UK's new MD Karen Thomson who said that people would be able to get online "pretty much every time" they try. AOL UK refused to say how many people it expected to attract but did say that around a couple of thousand people had already pre-registered their interest. The MD of LineOne, Ajay Chowdhury accused AOL UK of being caught in two minds over its pricing policy. ®

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