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AOL offers a peek at version 9.0

With its eye on potential defectors to broadband providers, America Online begins testing a version of its Net software that emphasizes self-expression and personality.

America Online has quietly begun testing the latest version of its Internet service, in the company's continuing effort to win back the hearts and minds of online consumers.

Released earlier this week to beta testers, AOL 9.0 is designed to emphasize self-expression and personality. Users can alter the "moods" of their AOL interface, allowing the background and windows to change colors and themes. AOL Time Warner's online division also has added more features to its popular e-mail and instant messaging services.

Version 9.0 is designed for broadband users "and also offers enhancements for those on dial-up," said AOL spokeswoman Jane Lennon.

Many of AOL's changes will affect its instant messaging client. One feature, called "super buddies," incorporates animated icons. For example, when a user enters a laughing smiley face into the message text, an animated laughing head appears in the corner of the IM window with sound included.

Other features added to instant messaging include the ability to share digital photos and videos with other AOL members in the chat window. People can also change their IM windows based on "skins"--overlays with particular visual themes--that are offered through AOL.

Meanwhile, the company is testing new features for its e-mail client, long criticized for being behind the times. The new client will integrate into the in-box a filing cabinet for archived messages, which until now has been a separate feature. AOL will also offer graphical stationery for mail messages and new spam-fighting tools.

The beta test comes as AOL is scrambling to protect its industry leadership in the face of worrisome developments in its business. Online advertising revenue is still shakey, and the company's dial-up subscriber base is shedding subscribers.

The latest numbers are troubling. Last month, AOL reported that its dial-up subscriber base in the United States has declined by 289,000 since the beginning of 2003 to 26.2 million. Its European subscribers dropped by 63,000 to 6.3 million during the same period.

AOL executives have attributed the declines to a number of factors, with defection to outside broadband providers the most critical one to address. In response, the company last month released AOL for Broadband, a high-speed version of its service that's being marketed to members considering dumping AOL for digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem providers. AOL is hoping broadband users will pay $14.95 a month on top of their access fees to remain an AOL member.

The official launch for AOL 9.0 is expected to be this summer, contrasing the company's tendency to bring out new versions in the fall, but AOL's Lennon would not give specific dates. Version 9.0 will be released to the public incrementally, in various test releases and upgrades to the service.