updated 12/13/2004 9:04:45 AM ET 2004-12-13T14:04:45

As part of its reincarnation, America Online Inc. is creating its own software for browsing the Web and playing movies and songs. It's a question of staying relevant in an increasingly broadband world.

AOL got its start as a dial-up Internet service provider, connecting millions of first-time users with software that had to be installed on computers and often made some serious modifications to the operating system.

That approach no longer makes sense, said Kerry Pearce-Parkins, director of AOL Product Management.  For one, corporations generally prohibit their employees from installing software.  That means many subscribers can't access AOL programming during the day.

And because broadband users get their Internet connection through a company other than AOL, they no longer need a software package that includes access tools.

That's why AOL is building a standalone Web browser, while keeping an all-in-one package available for those who really want it.

The browser's core will be Microsoft Corp.'s market-dominant Internet Explorer.  Though AOL financed an organization behind a competing browser called Firefox, Pearce-Parkins said the company stuck with IE so users won't have to make "a leap of faith."

(Microsoft and NBC are partners in MSNBC.)

But AOL engineers are working to add such features as tabbed browsing, letting users open new Web pages without cluttering the screen with new windows.  Unlike tabbed browsing in the Opera and Firefox browsers, AOL's will display a mini-version of the Web page, or thumbnail, as users scroll over a tab.

The AOL Browser will also have tools to thwart e-mail scams known as phishing and to index and search files on the user's computer.

But most importantly for the company, the browser will incorporate several ways to drive traffic to AOL programming and products, increasing ad opportunities.

The new AOL Media Player, built on AOL-owned Winamp technology, will also seek to integrate software with AOL's online radio stations and music store.  "Access to the AOL content and services is always a click away," Pearce-Parkins said.

The programs are expected to be ready for free download early next year.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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