Instant messaging is both wildly popular and mostly profit-free, but America Online appears determined to change the second half of that description.
On Thursday, AOL rolled out two new pay-per-minute services tied to its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software. One lets AIM users run telephone conferences by sending instant messages to people on their buddy lists. The other lets them set up Web meetings in the same way. In both cases, the organizer of the phone or Web conference pays a fee based on the event's duration and number of participants.
"Being able to launch these communications directly from your buddy list does away with a lot of the trouble of rounding people up, setting up PINs and passwords and scheduling times to get together," said Brian Curry, AOL's director of AIM network services.
The new services (www.aimatwork.com) are part of AOL's effort to push its instant messaging deeper into the workplace so it can yield more revenue. So far, most of the money generated by AIM -- a free program anyone can download -- has been through advertisements, but they are not big moneymakers.
AOL is the market leader in instant messaging, and reports that 14 million of the 36 million people using AIM in the past month did so in a work environment.
"We already know that users often start with an AIM exchange and move to a voice conference or Web meeting," Curry said.
The new conferencing tools are designed to automate that transition. They appear as a menu in a small box beside the standard AIM window. To organize a meeting or teleconference, you select your buddies' names, click a few buttons from the conference menu, and AIM sends instant messages inviting those people to participate. When each responds by sending a phone number in an instant message, the service automatically dials that number and patches in the person who answers into the teleconference.
With Web meetings, participants are sent a Web link they can click to join the online-based presentation, which employs technology from WebEx Communications Inc.
AIM voice conferencing is priced by call units, representing the number of participants and number of minutes. Prices start at $20 for 120 units, with a limit of 15 participants. AIM Web meetings are priced the same way, starting at 33 cents per unit on weekdays and 15 cents on weekends. Users must have Windows-compatible AIM software installed on their computer to participate.
Yahoo also launched a WebEx-powered service recently, linking its instant-message software to Web meetings. Unlike AOL's, Yahoo's offering requires a separate version of its messaging software released specifically for business use.
Both the AOL and Yahoo moves tie into a broader trend: Those two services, along with Microsoft's MSN, have been busy integrating various extra features into their free instant-messaging products. Yahoo recently plugged in an Internet radio service, AOL added weather reports, and MSN added subscription games.
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