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AOL, Cingular Ramp Up Wireless IM

A new agreement between America Online and Cingular Wireless will further spread AOL's flavor of IM into wireless sector, while promoting the mobile carrier's own efforts to deploy IM and other revenue-boosting services.

Through the arrangement with America Online, a unit of New York's AOL Time Warner , Atlanta-based Cingular will offer its subscribers the ability to share messages with users of the AOL Instant Messenger network. The companies plan to create an embedded version of the AIM client on Cingular phones, which will debut by January.

In the meantime, the agreement creates a gateway that enables Cingular subscribers to receive IMs as Short Messaging Service messages. AIM users gain the ability to IM directly to Cingular subscribers' phones by sending messages to the intended recipient's number.

Cingular Members also gain access to AIM's "IM Forwarding" feature, which enables AOL members and AIM users to forward incoming instant messages to their mobile phones while they're away from the computer. Specifically, when a user logs off of the desktop version of AIM, all further IMs they receive will be sent to their mobile phone via SMS, if "IM Forwarding" is enabled.

The deal is a significant step in AOL's efforts to boost wireless access to its networks: Cingular is the second-largest wireless carrier in the U.S., behind Verizon Wireless. AOL has steadily signed embedded AIM deals with AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, and AIM-via-SMS agreements with Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Nextel. In July, the company expanded its relationship with Sprint to add AIM clients to the carrier's 3G wireless devices.

AOL also is working to make it easier for users to integrate their wired and wireless IM usage. The company took the opportunity this week to announce a special America Online area and Web site where AIM users can manage their wireless connectivity and alerting options, as well as download ringtones and other mobile content. The site is available at AOL Keyword: My Mobile and at mymobile.aol.com.

For Cingular, the deal is a boost as well. Like all wireless carriers, Cingular is seeking ways to increase subscribers' usage of SMS, for which users pay either for each message sent or received, or in bulk.

Wireless carriers also are increasingly interested in rolling out full-fledged mobile IM in addition to the more simple SMS, which lacks the presence and availability information central to AIM's Buddy Lists and similar features of other networks. Like SMS, encouraging users to adopt mobile IM is important for increasing carriers' revenues, since most users of such 2.5G or 3G services will pay per unit of data transferred, rather than per-message.

SMS, mobile IM, and other non-voice services are seen as a way for U.S. mobile carriers to boost their average revenue per user -- in a bid to recreate the success enjoyed by European carriers, thanks to widespread SMS "texting" on the Continent.

The move is the latest by Cingular in its mobile IM strategy. Earlier this year, the company signed a similar deal with Yahoo! for support of the Web portal's IM client.

Additionally, the carrier plans to offer the mobile IM services to its subscribers using an IM server developed by Openwave and based on specifications set by the wireless standards body Open Mobile Alliance, of which Cingular is a member.

That decision could pave the way for Cingular users to chat not just with AIM users, but other major wireless networks' subscribers. OMA members include Nextel, AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile, Vodafone and France Telecom.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

How does the convergence of wired and wireless IM impact your business? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Fall Conference and Expo, Oct. 15 and 16 in San Jose, Calif. Sessions include "Mobilizing the Workforce" and "Issues in Mobile IM: Interoperability, Presence, and Whether SMS Will Ever Fly in the US."