Called AIM Mail, the service marks AOLs latest attempt to reposition itself as a broad portal rather than a subscriber-based service. It also will compete more directly against Yahoo Inc, Microsoft Corp.s MSN division and Google Inc., all of which have battled over Webmail storage and features over the past year.
Dulles, Va.-based America Online Inc. is expected to release AIM Mail later on Wednesday as part of an updated beta of AIM 5.9, the next version of the IM client. The e-mail service follows AOLs test last year of a revamped Webmail service targeted to subscribers.
The free service will feature 2GB of storage, spam and anti-virus protection, and an interface that lets users drag and drop messages to organize and save them in folders, AOL is announcing.
AIM Mail will be based on AIM screen names and the aim.com domain. AOLs existing base of 21 million active AIM users can use their current screen names as e-mail addresses and access the mail service once they download AIM 5.9. New users also can start e-mail accounts when they install AIM 5.9.
While AIM Mail initially will be accessed through the AIM client and its embedded version of the AOL Explorer browser, AOL plans to make it available from any browser through the AOL.com site once a full version is released in June, said Roy Ben-Yoseph, director of communication and client products at AOL.
The e-mail service is a key element in AOLs plans to revamp AOL.com as a portal site later this summer, said Chamath Palihapitiya, AOLs vice president and general manager for AIM and ICQ.
By starting the mail service through AIM, AOL hopes to gain a foothold in the increasingly competitive free e-mail market and to expose one of its strongest user bases to AOLs other online services.
"Its a great window into the rest of the AOL service," Palihapitiya said. "AOL.com is the portal, and what were doing with AIM is offering a great communications experience. When people think about reaching someone, we want them to think of AIM."
As part of the integration with AIM, e-mail will include presence information, and users will need to sign in only once to access IM and e-mail. AOLs familiar "Running Man" logo will appear within e-mail headers to indicate that a sender or another recipient is logged into AIM.
Accounts also will include rich-text formatting options, an address book with AIM presence information embedded, and the ability to check the status of an e-mail and to cancel a message sent to other AOL or AIM Mail users.
AOL already is planning additional features for the full launch of AIM Mail. The service will support the IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) standard so that users can access their AIM Mail accounts from other e-mail clients, Ben-Yoseph said.
AOL appears to be increasingly using AIM to launch new services. Since last week, it has introduced its AOL Explorer browser through the AIM 5.9 beta and has extended access to its AOL Journals Weblog-publishing service to AIM users.