AIM 5 Beta Goes Public

After months of waiting, a beta version of AOL Instant Messenger 5 has silently slipped out the door for public consumption, transforming myth into reality -- a surprising feat, given how radical the changes are to America Onlines popular instant messaging client.

In early May, the air was rife with rumors and innuendo from sources deep inside AOL TimeWarners Web properties division, headed up by former Netscape chief Jim Bankoff. eWeek was told that something big was being cooked up for future releases of its instant messaging software, with the company mulling aggressively expanding AIM and its capabilities with a release slated for the late summer.

America Onlines plan was to integrate a media into AIM and possibly browsing functionality. AOL wants to revamp its Web properties and draw more impressions to its sites and content. AIM was seen as a vehicle to achieve these goals.

As forecasted, the AIM 5 beta includes "content panels" that shift the softwares main window among the buddy list, Web content (music, news, and entertainment), and online extensions such as expressions and buddy icons.

"We are testing the waters as part of an ongoing effort to enhance the IM experience," said Derick Mains, an AOL spokesman. "It is specifically important to solicit user feedback from AIM fans, and we are encouraging users to test and give feedback." Mains declined to comment on whether or not AOL is taking aim at MSN 7.

The browser engine being utilized is currently Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer in lieu of the media giants homegrown Gecko engine or the browser-agnostic Komodo.

Other additions include a typing indicator for users to see when someone is responding to their message--formerly only seen when a direct connection was made to a buddy. AIM Expressions--a piecemeal collection of skins and themes--also inject a greater degree of customization.

Users simply click on the theme they desire and are prompted to make the change to themes such as box office-derived "Eight-Legged Freaks." The user interface itself is also laden with more icons to expose "hidden" functionality.

AIM 5 also plots a "consumerish" course away from Enterprise AIM, an encrypted enterprise-class IM service.

However, according to James Governor, applications strategies analyst at Illuminata, "some large companies have banned AIM because of its reputation for consuming memory and slowing the performance of client machines. If AIM 5 has not addressed this, its unlikely to fare better than its predecessor in the enterprise."

Due in part to sagging subscriptions to its flagship AOL service, and wariness to aggressively add new features to the AOL client in lieu of losing users and subscriptions to MSN, AIM is being eyed as a way to draw in new users. A source also cited rival Microsofts MSN 7 software as a catalyst for amending AOLs Web strategy.

The rationale is that users of IM programs usually stick with their screen names and will put up with bloatware (e.g., past releases of ICQ). In addition, many AIM users are not subscribers to AOL and remain an untapped demographic. The AIM today popup Window that made its debut last year provided a window into where AOL intended to take the software.

AOL is decidedly a consumer company. It couldnt exploit its iPlanet assets, for example, and exited the enterprise software market. But enhancing AIM as a "foot in the door" to temp consumer exploration of more AOL/Time Warner content plays to the companys strengths, said Illuminatas Governor.

Last Octobers release of MSN 7 saw tie-ins to Microsoft Web content and alerts notifying users of breaking news, stock quotes, and weather and travel updates via e-mail or instant messaging. It also boasted personalization and a streamlined design.

There is no word on a release schedule for MSN 8.

To download and test out the new AIM, visit AOLs web site.

Related Story:

  • AOL Version 8.0 Beta Gets Personal