AOL Releases 8.0 Beta, Omits Gecko

UPDATED America Online this week released a beta version of its upcoming AOL 8.0 client, code-named "Spacely." Version 8.0 sports slight enhancements over its predecessor, but lacks the company's Gecko browser engine that was expected to be included in lieu of Internet Explorer. The update instead puts an emphasis on broadband support as more users make the switch from dial-up Internet connectivity.

AOL has been aiming to integrate Gecko, which lies at the core of Netscape, into its client ever since an agreement with rival Microsoft to include IE was not renewed in early 2001. The company began testing a browser agnostic technology dubbed Komodo shortly thereafter, which allowed CompuServe to switch between Internet Explorer and Gecko.

Although CompuServe 7.0 eventually shipped with Gecko last fall, the feature was left out of AOL 7.0 for compatibility reasons. Not only did AOL have a hard time ironing out stability issues within the technology, but switching to a new engine meant AOL had to ensure a browsing experience similar to that which millions of customers enjoy with Internet Explorer. AOL opted to wait and in March released a refresh beta of AOL 7.0 containing Gecko.

The decision to leave Gecko out of version 8.0 thus far may indicate that AOL is hesitant to rely on the fairly new technology. Although Gecko has been in development for over four years, Mozilla -- the browser suite from which Gecko was born -- only made its first official 1.0 release last week. An AOL spokesperson declined to say whether Gecko would be included when the final version of AOL 8.0 ships this fall.

The AOL interface has been given a slight makeover in the new beta to mirror a recent test release for Mac OS X. Members can now add background images to instant messages, and change the color of their IM smiley faces.

Digital media has also received a small boost in AOL 8.0. The included AOL Media Player now supports playback of multiple CDs, but continues to use an arcane interface and rely upon Real Networks' RealPlayer software - which is installed transparently with the client. AOL has yet to find a place for Winamp, the freeware media player it purchased three years ago, despite efforts by Nullsoft developers to create a modern version of AMP.

AOL users can download the 8.0 beta by visiting Keyword: Beta. The release weighs in at 32MB and functions on all versions of Windows except 95 and NT.

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