AOL Fine Tunes New Media Player

EXCLUSIVE AOL Music is ramping up its efforts to release a new Media Player independent of the AOL client software, with a long-term goal of building its own music store.

While a beta release is currently only available to AOL members, sources tell BetaNews the company plans to bring AOL Media Player (AMP) outside its "walled garden" to expose new users to AOL content and services.

Commerce integration will play a key role as AOL targets the mainstream Web. Taking a note from iTunes and Windows Media Player, future revisions of AMP are expected to include the ability to buy music from within the player, BetaNews has learned.

Initially, AMP will feature the same digital purchase options as AOL Music: iTunes for individual songs and subscription-based MusicNet. But such integration poses a problem, as music from these stores is proprietary and would require that a user switch to another media player.

Long term, AOL isn't likely to sit idly by as rivals corner the music download market. Sources say the company is considering its options for an in-house music store available to both members and Web consumers. Thus, music purchased from AOL can be played back directly in AMP.

Microsoft followed a similar path on the road to launching its own MSN Music store in September.

The move away from member-only offerings reflects a general strategy shift at AOL into the realm of free Web services. With a declining dial-up subscriber base, the company is spinning off its products to attract fresh consumers.

AMP was previously slated to be a component of AOL's Fanfare suite, which has since been disbanded. As first reported by BetaNews, Fanfare was designed as an alternative AOL client for broadband users and included a Web browser, spyware protection, instant messaging, calendar, and e-mail client.

Although AOL client tie-ins will remain, AMP is now a full-fledged application, complete with media library, video support and CD ripping to MPEG4 AAC or Microsoft's WMA formats. Like iTunes and Winamp 5, AOL's other media player, AMP features customizable smart playlists and integrated streaming audio from Radio@AOL.

Surprisingly, AMP is not based on AOL's Winamp platform, only utilizing Winamp's "Unagi" playback engine. Instead, AMP is built atop the company's Communicator user interface framework. Communicator was first unveiled in beta form two years ago and eventually evolved into Fanfare.

Despite the overlap, AMP is not meant to replace Winamp - even with the recent departure of the player's development team. AOL says its new Media Player is not a competing product and has different audience, as Winamp users are not likely AOL users.

Building AMP from scratch was not an easy task, and AOL has yet to set a final release date. A source close to the company says AMP has been in development for three years, citing "rewrite after rewrite." Beta testing continues, however, with new builds expiring in early 2005.

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