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AOL Eyes Enterprise, Mobile IM Growth

BOSTON -- Last year, instant messaging went from toy to tool. This year, it will go mainstream, Edmund Fish, an America Online senior vice president, said this morning.

To help with the transition, the Dulles, Va., company will strike deals and develop applications and services for the enterprise and mobile markets.

"Instant messaging has a presence in 85 percent of enterprises but only 10 percent of it is supported," Fish said in his keynote at Instant Messaging Planet Conference & Expo. "That's a growth opportunity."

AOL strategists are meeting with industry analysts to determine what IM productivity applications business customers need, Fish said. In addition, AOL wants to increase its partnerships with companies that want to piggyback onto the AOL network or integrate its IM technology with their interfaces.

For example, the company has a pact with Reuters, the financial news and information service, whereby an AOL-developed bridge allows clients using AOL and Reuters IM systems communicate. It also recently signed a agreement to allow Macromedia to develop IM tools for its platform.

"Integration (of AOL IM) into applications they already use will make them more productive," Fish said. "We will increasingly partner and to point out value of being in the AIM network."

While integration is important, it's quite different from interoperability, a problem many industry-watchers believe is putting the brakes on IM growth. AOL is cautious when it comes to allowing its service to work with other popular services from Microsoft and Yahoo! .

Fish said questions surrounding reliability, security and economics need to be resolved first. Moving without addressing those first could cause more problems than it would fix, he said. AOL is working with standards bodies, but no agreement appears imminent, he said.

Another area AOL will focus on straddles the business-consumer line: mobile. This year, AOL software will be shipped on 10 million phones in the United States, including many third generation handsets, which are capable of delivering video clips and other high-bandwidth applications.

Although 3G has caught on faster in Asia and Europe faster than the United States, several carriers are in trials. AT&T Wireless has pledged to roll out the service in four markets by year's end.

AOL believes the new phones will help boost the number of mobile sessions and make IM more important in people's lives. The company has also developed an adapter that will allow users of 3G phones IM colleagues on older phones using short messaging service technology .

Despite all the attention being paid to business and mobile users, AOL isn't leaving consumers out of their 2004 plans. Taken broadly, AOL's plan is to enhance simple text messaging with video and graphics. The strategy builds off last month's release of AIM 5.5 which supports AIM Games offering for video game enthusiasts and Love.com personals service.

The initiatives are examples of turning "traffic to actual subscribers," Fish said.

Earlier today, AOL joined the social networking craze with the launch of the invitation-only ICQ Universe. The company plans to build its social network on top of the existing ICQ IM service which already serves more than 8 million active members and counts more than 175 million subscribers worldwide.

Editor's note: IM Planet Conference & Expo is produced by the parent company of this Web site