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Testers sneak a peek at AOL 8.0

Quietly released to beta testers this week, the new version of the software includes more ways for people to customize the look and feel of the online service.

America Online has quietly released a preview version of its next-generation AOL 8.0 software, which will include more ways for people to customize the look and feel of the service.

The preview version, offered to beta testers this week, is not a drastic shift in appearance and use from AOL 7.0. Since the new version is in beta, AOL 8.0 will likely undergo more changes and additions as the fall release date draws closer.

"We just began beta testing," said AOL spokeswoman Jane Lennon. "The current beta only includes a few new features."

The AOL 8.0 beta comes bundled with Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. Over the past year, AOL has waded further away from using IE as the default browser in its various online services and has warmed up to its Netscape Communications subsidiary instead.

Official versions of CompuServe 7.0, an AOL subsidiary, use Netscape as the default browser; preview versions of AOL 7.0 and AOL for Mac OS X have also come bundled with Netscape.

AOL's Lennon declined to say whether Netscape will come bundled in future beta versions.

If there is a central theme to the scattered collection of new features in the AOL 8.0 beta, it would be customization. For instance, AOL 8.0 allows members to add wallpaper graphics to their instant messenger interfaces, alter the colors of their IM smiley faces and block individuals from communicating with them.

Other features include the addition of mail signatures, improved address book printing, a digital subscriber line and cable modem-ready connection, and the ability to play audio and mixed-media CDs from a CD-ROM peripheral.

The AOL 8.0 beta comes less than a week after Microsoft released a testing version of the first major Windows XP update, or service pack. The timing of AOL's beta may not be coincidental. With Service Pack 1, Microsoft is introducing major changes to how Windows XP handles so-called middleware, such as Web browsing, instant messaging and media playback technologies.

The changes, mandated by a yet-to-be-approved settlement in Microsoft's 4-year-old antitrust case, would allow PC makers or consumers to hide access to some Microsoft middleware products. But software developers must enable their middleware to work with the control for implementing the feature. The AOL 8.0 beta, which more tightly integrates media playback and other middleware into the online-access software, could be a first step for testing the Windows XP changes.

The changes also are expected to lead to a second PC land grab, with AOL and other software developers paying PC makers for preferred placement of their middleware.

News.com's Joe Wilcox contributed to this report.