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AOL previews shortcut to sign-in online

The Internet service provider is quietly testing a new software feature that allows its customers to use their AOL screen names and passwords as sign-ins for other affiliated Web services.

America Online is quietly testing a new software feature that allows its customers to use their AOL screen names and passwords as sign-ins for other affiliated Web services.

Dubbed "Screen Name," the feature provides a shortcut for Net surfers who register for online services by, for example, storing personal information commonly requested by Web sites, such as names, ZIP codes and email addresses. The feature lets AOL members enter their screen names and passwords to complete the registration process, according to an AOL preview site describing the service.

An AOL representative declined comment on Screen Name and said the company plans to take down the preview site.

A source close to AOL said the company is testing the service but has no definite time frame for launch. The source added that AOL will eventually increase features to make it easier to purchase products online and is negotiating partnerships with third-party online merchants.

Most Web sites require customers to fill out registration forms indicating name, age and other personal information to qualify for premium services. The arrangement lets sites gather demographic information from consumers to better target advertisements or pitch products relevant to their interests. In return, the companies offer people more control over what they see and additional perks on their sites.

AOL rivals such as Microsoft have similar products. Microsoft's Passport allows people to register and shop on partner e-commerce sites and lets consumers sign in for its own Web services, such as Hotmail and MSN.

Analysts say online registration and wallet services can benefit developers in many ways. By signing on a list of Web sites, the service can gain ubiquity and reach more Web users with their advertising sponsors. In addition, these services can tap customer information, which is marketers' gold on the Internet.

"They become the pass-over to other sites," said James Van Dyke, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "The power lies in information gathering."

AOL's Screen Name would be available to customers of services including AOL, AOL Instant Messenger, CompuServe 2000 and AOL.com.