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AOL to unveil new Winamp

Free and paid version of the multimedia player are set to debut this week, sources say, as the software returns to its simpler roots.

America Online is expected to release an upgrade for its free Winamp multimedia software as early as Tuesday, with a fee-based "pro" version that does MP3 encoding to follow, according to sources familiar with the plans.

The Winamp5 update highlights a return to simpler times for Nullsoft, the original developer of Winamp, which AOL acquired in 1999 to jumpstart 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 criticisms that it was bloated and slow. It was scrapped earlier this year for the slimmer 2.x version.

Brennan Underwood, who spearheaded the development of Wasabi, along with 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 might be launched Monday. But the sources said the release will be timed for Tuesday.

Winamp5 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, according to the sources.

AOL is also expected to announce a for-pay version of the software, called "Winamp Pro," with the launch coming as early as Wednesday. Pricing has not been set. Winamp has hinted in postings on its Web site that it might release a paid version that will include MP3-encoding capabilities and faster CD ripping and 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.

A representative for AOL declined to comment.

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

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's 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.