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AOL lifts curtain on version 9.0

America Online offers a sneak peek at the upcoming version of its flagship service, showing off new personalization and multimedia features.

NEW YORK--America Online on Tuesday previewed the upcoming version 9.0 of its flagship AOL service, showing off an early rendition of the software that includes many new personalization and multimedia features.

AOL 9.0 won't be released until fall 2003, and its precursor, AOL 8.0, came out just weeks ago. Still, company executives touted the pending upgrade as one example of much-needed changes to the premium service.

The sneak peek was part of a presentation by AOL executives during parent company AOL Time Warner's analyst and investor day here. The media giant outlined its plans for turning around AOL, which has suffered heavy revenue losses and stagnant subscriber growth, in addition to other financial issues.

Key differences from past versions include a broad palette of customization features that let users tinker with the look and feel of the service, as well as a feature that lets users organize a personalized My AOL homepage with custom news, e-mail and entertainment links, among other things.

AOL 9.0 also will offer better file management options and give users more control over photos, video, music and other media. Notably, the service allows for significant file-sharing options in conjunction with its popular instant messaging service. The IM service also gets an overhaul in the preview version: Users can access address books from within the messaging client and use e-mail, in addition to the standard real-time chat, to contact friends.

With AOL 9.0's file management system, users can drag and drop media files to forward to friends as attachments in e-mails or IM messages.

Many of the features appear aimed at catching up with rivals. Yahoo, for example, has long offered custom My Yahoo pages allowing members to set preferences for news headlines, weather, sports scores and other customized content.

In addition to new features for the dial-up version of the service, AOL showed off some broadband enhancements for AOL 9.0.

AOL's high-speed media player can be expanded to fill the entire screen and promises to cut down on "buffering" delays associated with Internet streaming.

AOL 9.0 also offers new community features, including an e-mail invitation service that lets members include links to online ticket sales for concerts and other events.