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New AOL 6.0 geared for broadband, gadgets

America Online offers analysts a sneak peek of an upgrade to its proprietary online service that enhances support for high-speed Internet connections and non-PC devices.

America Online has begun offering analysts a sneak peek of an upgrade to its proprietary online service that enhances support for high-speed Internet connections and non-PC devices.

While unauthorized versions of the software have already found their way onto the Web, analysts today provided details from the first official previews of AOL 6.0.

The upgrade offers incremental changes and is intended to mark the company's next step in extending its services beyond the personal computer through multiple access points and devices. "AOL Anywhere," as the strategy is called, has long been the company's mantra for adding its services to new platforms.

The company has struck partnerships and launched versions of its online service for television and wireless devices. In showing the next version of the company's service to Wall Street, AOL executives also demonstrated a new Internet device.

"The theme of the meeting was the AOL Anywhere strategy and how AOL 6.0 and these new devices are key to the strategy," Merrill Lynch research analyst Henry Blodget wrote in a note to investors.

The strategy is a significant bet on the ability of the Internet to extend its reach beyond computer networks into wireless communications, traditional broadcast media and Internet-enabled appliances. While concepts such as interactive television and the wireless Web have yet to be proven in the marketplace, AOL wants to be ready to pounce if such areas take off.

Competitors including Yahoo and Microsoft are also heavily backing wireless and broadband initiatives.

As part of its effort, AOL will rename AOL.com as "AOL Anywhere." AOL.com customers will be able to use their AOL services, such as email, calendar and photos, through the Web instead of strictly within the proprietary system.

The new software will also allow members to use AOL through various types of broadband connections, including digital subscriber line (DSL), satellite and home networking.

Other additions include a beefed up version of AOL's MP3 player, Winamp. The new version will allow AOL members to play audio and video in streaming formats including MP3 and RealNetworks technologies, according to AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley.

In addition, AOL 6.0 will include voice-recognition technology. Dubbed "AOL by Phone," the service will let customers call a toll-free phone number to listen to email messages or check news and stock quotes.

The company's email service will also get an upgrade, according to Blodget's report. Perhaps its most popular feature, the email system will begin accepting messages encoded in HTML format, the coding language of the Web. According to the report, this feature will let AOL direct market to its email recipients.

AOL 6.0 will launch this fall, around the same time as AOL and Time Warner's proposed merger You've got
Time Warner is expected to close. The combination is under review by regulatory bodies in the United States and Europe. The Federal Communications Commission has begun publicly questioning details of the merger and has held a hearing to allow company executives, industry leaders and public advocates to voice their opinions about the deal.

Rival media companies led by Walt Disney have voiced concerns about the deal to federal regulators. Disney has urged the government to regulate the merger should it be approved. One of Disney's demands is to separate AOL Time Warner's cable business from its content business. Time Warner Cable is the second-largest cable operator in the nation.