America Online Inc. wants to make instant messaging a doorway into other communications services.
The company on Thursday launched access to Web conferencing and audio conferencing for its AOL Instant Messenger service, joining a growing trend of merging conferencing services with instant-messaging clients.
Calling the offering AIM Business Services, Dulles, Va.-based AOL is partnering with WebEx Communications Inc. to offer a connection into online meetings and with Lightbridge Inc. to offer audio conferencing. Both are offered for a fee as premium services.
AOL is making the service available to all of its 35 million active AIM users who are using its latest AIM client, version 5.5. But it is particularly targeting its14 million users who predominantly use AIM while at work.
"People already are telling us that they are using AIM as a front end to a lot of communications," said Brian Curry, senior director of AIM Network Services. "It was a natural thing for us to knit these things together in the service because people already are doing it manually."
With the WebEx integration, AIM users can launch into a Web conference for sharing presentations and holding online meetings from an IM session.
Current corporate customers of WebEx also can use their existing accounts with AIM, including features for restricting employee access to the service, for no additional charge, said Praful Shah, vice president of strategic communications at San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx.
Other users can pay as they use the service, with pricing for WebEx through AIM starting at 33 cents a minute per participant. Audio conferencing with a Web meeting costs extra.
Corporate-based billing and access will be added to the Lightbridge audio conferencing service for AIM in the fall, Curry said. Now, it can be purchased in packages of "call units" starting at $20 for 120 call units. A call unit is deducted for each minute a participant is on a call, so a 10-minute call with 5 participants would use 50 call units.
With both services, AOL receives an undisclosed share of the revenue, Curry said. The major IM networks, such as AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger, have been increasingly looking for ways to make money from their free services.
AOL is not the first to add conferencing into IM. Yahoo and Microsoft Corp. have created similar linkages with Web conferencing for their enterprise-oriented IM.
Yahoo last year added WebExs Web conferencing service to its Business Messenger service for enterprises, while Microsoft has added connections between Windows Messenger and its own Office Live Meeting service.
Kevin Thornton, vice president and general manager of enhanced services at Lightbridge, said the AIM deal is the companys first for its newly launched GroupTalk audio conferencing service.
The partnerships made sense for the Burlington, Mass., company because it allows organizers of a conference call to use their AIM buddy lists to know whether co-workers or friends might be available for a call, he said.
Users can invite participants for a conference call from their buddy lists. Participants receive an IM invitation and can click a link to provide a phone number.
"It gives you the ability to round up a group of people quickly," Thornton said. "[And] I dont have to know where you are."
The AIM Business Services can be accessed within a "communications toolbar" alongside the AIM buddy list. For new downloads of AIM version 5.5, AOL has added an option to add the toolbar, while current users of version 5.5 can add it through the AIM at Work Web site.