RealTime IT News

AOL Recruits Users in Instant Message Battle

America Online Inc. is testing a new feature that would build viral marketing for its AOL Instant Messenger product directly into a future version of AOL 5.0.

The feature, known as Mail Contacts, is a proposed enhancement to the online service's Buddy List capability, and is designed in part to encourage AOL members to invite non-AOL users to install the Internet version of AIM.

With more than 37 million AIM users, AOL already has a commanding lead in the instant messaging market. Mail Contacts, which is being evaluated for release in an upcoming refresh of the AOL 5.0 client software, could extend that lead, but is likely to be controversial.

At present, AOL's Buddy List feature notifies users when a designated list of friends or colleagues is online and available to receive instant messages. The Mail Contacts enhancement would extend that function to e-mail, automatically adding screen names or Internet addresses to the user's Buddy List whenever the user opens a piece of email.

In addition to temporarily adding the address of the sender of an email to a user's Buddy List, Mail Contacts also grabs the first seven addresses listed in the email's "CC" field. (Entries in the "Blind CC" field are not listed.)

Subsequently clicking on an AOL screen name in the Buddy List will launch an instant message to that user. If a non-AOL Internet address is in any of the incoming e-mail message fields, it too will also show up in a user's Buddy List, contained in brackets. If the AOL user attempts to send an instant message to the Internet user, the software will display a message asking whether the user would like to email the person at that address and invite the recipient to install AIM.

While many AOL (AOL) users may welcome the convenience of being able to send instant messages to AOL email contacts, others may balk at the intrusion, said Seamus McAteer, an analyst with Jupiter Communications.

"Nobody wants their personal information management utilities populated with entries without their permission. That's personal information. If AOL does this, they can expect some backlash," McAteer said.

Users who guard their online privacy carefully may also recoil at the thought that their online presence will be announced to other members anytime they send or are copied on an email. The proposed Mail Contacts feature, however, obeys an AOL user's privacy preferences and enables him or her to block their names from showing up on the Buddy Lists of others.

David Simons, managing director of Digital Video Investments, said most AOL users are unlikely to be upset by AOL's attempt to use them as emissaries of AIM to Internet users.

"Some may view it as intrusive, others might welcome it. On balance, I don't see any big deal about it, as long as you have an option to set something that says, `Don't bother me with this again,'" said Simons.

An AOL spokesperson Friday confirmed that Mail Contacts is currently in testing but refused to elaborate on any features or future plans for the service.

Should AOL roll out the Mail Controls feature soon, it will be heading off messaging competitor Microsoft at the pass, according to Jupiter's McAteer.

"This is going to be another duke-it-out battle. AOL is holding a dealer's hand right now, and we'll see how Microsoft manages to respond."