AIM Video Debuts, Links to iChat

America Online has officially taken the wraps off the new
version of its AOL Instant Messenger application, with its much
-anticipated
video IM feature — and the surprise addition of
compatibility with Apple Computer’s iChat AV.

AIM version 5.5’s chief new feature, dubbed Live Video IM, made its way
into the software only after the Federal Communications Commission cleared AOL to deploy advanced, broadband-based IM services — including videoconferencing.

Months after regulatory approval, AOL first began enabling two AIM users
to initiate videoconferencing sessions in a beta released in connection
with its new Love.com dating site. When users click on a video icon during
a chat, a small video window appears alongside the text IM conversation.
Users can view the output of their camera in one tab, view their Buddy in
another, and view them both simultaneously using a picture-in-picture
feature.

The service is only available to users of Windows XP with the Microsoft
RTC 1.2 Libraries.

In a twist, however, AIM 5.5 Live Video IM is compatible with the latest
public beta of version 2.1 of Apple’s iChat AV application. iChat AV offers
AIM-compatible text chat as well as high-quality videoconferencing.

With an upgrade to iChat AV’s latest version, released today, Mac users
can take part in video sessions with AIM 5.5 users. (The software supports
iChat-to-iChat videoconferencing using Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP
, although that technology is not used in connection with its
new AIM compatibility.) AOL spokespeople had previously declined to discuss
whether the two systems would interoperate.

“This is a first for video messaging,” said Ed Fish, senior vice
president and general manager for AOL Desktop Messaging. “We not only
introduced video messaging in AIM today, but we have made it compatible with
iChat. We have taken the original relationship we announced in … 2002, where iChat users and AIM users can connect to each
other, and extended that into video.”

The move stands to give AIM video a sharp initial boost in users of the
new feature, since iChat has
offered video
since June, and fans of the service have created a number
of sites devoted to or leveraging the application, ranging from
iChatFinder.com, iChattin.com and MyiSight to the decidedly more risqué
iChatNaked.

“The iChat community … is a very vibrant community of IM users,” Fish
said. “We’ve said, let’s put the PC in the background and just let people
connect to their communities. And a very nice way to do that would be to
extend that kind of compatibility from AIM video to iChat.

In coming months, similar video technology will be integrated into the IM
client embedded into the company’s flagship America Online service, Fish
said.

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The addition of Live Video IM is important for AOL, since rivals like
Yahoo! and Microsoft have offered
video of their own for some time. Yahoo! enjoyed a years-long head-start on
AIM’s video features, having launched an initial version of its service in
2001. In May of 2003, while AOL had been lobbying for a removal of the FCC
restriction, Microsoft inked a deal with Webcam manufacturer Logitech to
provide a co-branded interface add-on to MSN Messenger and, later,
integrated video in MSN Messenger 6.

Additional features, and additional impact

AIM 5.5 also officially introduces “Screen Name Linking,” a feature
unveiled in beta during the Love.com launch. Screen Name Linking enables
users to log on and exchange messages using multiple Screen Names,
simultaneously.

The feature transparently routes messages to and from users’ primary
accounts — enabling users to communicate from multiple, separate accounts
at the same time. Such a feature, for instance, helps AIM users create
private accounts used exclusively for Love.com, without risking disclosure
of their primary AIM Screen Name.

“Users have a number of different personas when they’re online,” Fish
said. “These personas are about your personality, not just a name. What we
believe, what users have been telling us they want, is a flexible,
controlled and convenient experience for showing their different
personalities to the groups they associate with those personalities.”

For instance, Fish said Superman would use a different Screen Name
persona while communicating with contacts of his mild-mannered alter-ego,
Clark Kent.

“Clark Kent has a business-oriented persona, he doesn’t want to use
expressions and icons and consumer stuff, because his business contacts and
friends wouldn’t think that’s the right personality for that environment,”
Fish said. “For Superman, the preference is to block Lex Luthor, to allow
Lois Lane, etc. He maintains two different lists and blocking. And
importantly, you should be able to get it out of the same Buddy List
experience.”

To incorporate the feature, AIM Buddy List user interface has expanded to
show multiple accounts in the same interface: the AIM 5.5 client allows
users to switch among the Buddy Lists for each Linked Screen Name by
clicking on a tab for each.

Users also can set Screen Names added via Linking to be “invisible” —
which means they appear offline to other users while still being able to
send and receive messages. (Other major IM networks have provided similar
features for some time.)

After some
early previews
, embedded IM- and presence-enabled games also make their
appearance in AIM 5.5, using technology provided by AOL partner WildTanget.
While some other IM networks offer embedded games, Fish described the effort
as being larger than merely offering online games, Fish said.

Rather, it’s “a true platform, so that game companies and game content
can deeply integrate presence and instant messaging features,” he said,
adding that AOL plans further products that will leverage IM and presence.

“You’ll see a variety of things that will start shipping to the market
over the next two to six months that are aimed both at-work environments,
and what I call ‘at play’ environments, that increasingly use that power of
presence,” he said. “Users are basically saying that their use of IM is
evolving as a communications medium … It’s not just one-to-one text, but a
lot of group activity, and a lot of activities that you can do with people
in your contact lists or Buddy Lists — and games is an example.”

Another area in which workplace IM might be impacted is in upgrades to IM
gateways. After all, the addition of new features to the world’s most
popular IM client makes it likely that upgrades will be in store for the AIM
Enterprise Gateway — AOL’s IM proxy for security and account management —
as well as gateways marketed by its partners.

“I think not only will the AIM Enterprise Gateway [be upgraded,] but also
our Certified Application Partner products — whether it’s IMlogic or
Akonix,” Fish said. “Each enterprise … is going to make their own
decision, and I think the gateways will be supporting that. And they’ll be
supporting the Video IM release.”

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

How can your business leverage the marriage of IM and multimedia? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring Conference and Expo, March 3 and 4 in Boston. Sessions include: “Connectivity Concerns: Enterprise vs. Public IM & the State of Interoperability on Your Business” and “Giving Presence to Telephony and Multimedia Conferencing.”

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