AOL was not the first to provide an instant messaging program, but in the United States at least, they have been by far the most popular. While challenger MSN (now known as Windows Live Messenger) has been steadily closing the gap, AIM is still the instant messenger program to beat. Now, AOL has released a major new upgrade to the application. Version 6.0 comes with a host of new features that AOL hopes will keep them ahead in the IM game.
Taking a cue from web browsers like Firefox and Opera, AIM 6 adds the ability to keep all chat messages in the same window, letting the user switch between them with tabs. The program automatically logs conversations (finally), and allows users to share pictures with a new drag-and-drop interface. The number of possible “buddies” (AIM-speak for contacts) has been increased from 500 to 1,000, so all those super-popular people with more than 500 friends can finally keep track of them all at the same time.
The program adds a few new features only tangentially related to instant messaging. The app integrates with AOL’s PhoneLine VoIP service, so users can switch between typing and talking. In addition, users can now create their own AIM Pages from various templates.
Why the rash of new features? AOL is competing with Microsoft not just in the instant messaging space, but also in the realm of advertising-sponsored web applications. The name change from MSN Messenger to Windows Live Messenger was quite deliberate: Microsoft wants all of its IM users to interact with Hotmail, and Windows Live Spaces, and any other “Web 2.0” application they can think of. Adding extra features to AOL Instant Messenger is a way for AOL to compete for these eyeballs.
AOL may have an uphill battle ahead of it. Its traditional dial-up Internet access service is losing its once-large customer base, and few people are signing up for “AOL for Broadband” once they get high speed access. The company has been shifting its business model towards an advertising-driven Internet business, and has today appointed Randel Falco, a former top executive at NBC, to drive this transition. Falco recently supervised a major advertising drive on NBC’s various web sites, including NBC.com and iVillage. One of his main areas of focus after taking over the AOL division of Time Warner will be to draw in users with more content, particularly video.
AOL’s new strategy is showing some dividends. The company posted a 46 percent jump in advertising revenue in the third quarter, taking market share from rivals such as Yahoo. Yahoo, meanwhile, has partnered with Microsoft to interoperate with the MSN instant messenger network.
The days of simple instant messaging programs may be long gone with the release of AIM 6.0. Unless, of course, you use one of the multi-protocol IM clients like GAIM, Trillian, Adium, or Jabberwocky.