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AOL trumpets new Winamp

America Online releases Winamp 5.0, an upgrade to its free multimedia software, and a fee-based "pro" version that encodes songs into MP3s is expected to follow.

America Online on Tuesday released an upgrade for its free Winamp multimedia software, and a fee-based "pro" version that encodes songs into MP3s is expected to follow.

As previously reported, the Winamp 5.0 update highlights a return to simpler times for Nullsoft, the original developer of Winamp, which AOL acquired in 1999 to jump-start its online music strategy. The previous version, Winamp3, was an ambitious attempt by Nullsoft to create its own programming language, called "Wasabi," and to develop applications for the player. However, Winamp3 was dogged by criticism that it was bloated and slow. It was scrapped earlier this year for the slimmer 2.x version.

Brennan Underwood, who led the development of Wasabi, and another prominent Nullsoft developer were laid off last week, according to sources close to Nullsoft. The layoffs were part of widespread cuts in AOL's California offices.

Nullsoft founder Justin Frankel had hinted on Winamp's Web site that version 5.0 could be launched Monday. But the company waited until early Tuesday morning to officially release it.

Winamp 5.0 is an attempt to combine elements of the 2.x and 3.x versions into a sleeker, faster player. Like previous iterations, it is designed to manage online music and video libraries. New features include Winamp-developed software that can rip and burn CDs using Dolby's Advanced Audio Coding format.

AOL also is expected to release a for-pay version of the software, called "Winamp Pro," as early as Wednesday. The software will cost $14.95, according to the Web site, but it was not available for download as of Tuesday morning. The site, however, shows that Winamp Pro will include MP3 encoding and 48x CD burning.

Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, which owns a patent covering MP3 technology, requires licensees to pay a per-copy fee for software that includes MP3-encoding capabilities.

Other Winamp5 features include quick access to Shoutcast radio stations, which let customers listen to other people's song lists or to broadcast their own, and a similar video-streaming service.

"Winamp continues to be a popular player for digital media enthusiasts who want a lot of flexibility and control over their media experience," AOL said in a statement.

Once a dominant online music player, Winamp has faded into the background under AOL, as competitive products from Microsoft, RealNetworks and Apple Computer have gained market share. In May 2003, Winamp reached 5.5 million users, lagging far behind Microsoft Windows Media's 43.1 million, RealNetworks' 26 million and Apple QuickTime's 13.5 million, according to online measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings.

Windows Media and QuickTime are both bundled into Microsoft and Apple's operating systems, respectively. RealNetworks' software remains widely used by consumers for playback and by the industry as a streaming-media delivery format.

AOL has recently taken bolder steps to incorporate Nullsoft's technology into its flagship proprietary service. The most recent version of AOL uses Nullsoft's audio and video-streaming technology, and its media player is based on Winamp technology.