AOL’s 9.0 ‘Peek’ Shows Ascendant IM

When America Online unveiled a peek of its prototype version 9.0 during its analyst day in New York on Tuesday, it also highlighted the increasing dominance of instant messaging on computer desktops.

The new version of AOL’s service, slated for release in 2003, offers 30 different personalization modules that users can choose from to set up welcome screens and desktop configurations, said David Gang, executive vice president of product marketing at AOL.

The new modules in version 9.0 — welcome screens, e-mail and media players, for example — are tightly integrated with AOL’s IM client. Using enhanced presence engines, the key ingredient in IM’s popularity, AOL members are alerted to new e-mail, can send e-mails, share pictures and files, and initiate streaming audio and video communications — all from within their Buddy Lists.

Given the explosive growth of IM usage across homes and businesses, it stands to reason that the next version of America Online’s proprietary service would reflect the increasing shift away from the Web browser as a dominant communications platform, to the IM client as a central manager of multimedia and communications applications.

That shift is reflected in version 9.0 of America Online’s embedded instant messaging application. It shifts to the Buddy List much of the responsibility now handled in version 8.0 by the AOL “companion” — which serves as a desktop “traffic cop” in managing incoming communications. In the Buddy Lists of version 9.0, tabs slide out to help users launch or manage incoming and outgoing e-mail, check whether new voicemail messages have been received for dialup users, and manage broadband media functions, like launching video and audio files and viewing rich media advertisements.

The applications have been built with extensive HTML integrated throughout each module, enabling more synchronization of functions on the desktop such as e-mail, media players and, of course, the IM client, thanks to beefed up presence engines underneath the application.

As a result, if users want to add images to e-mail messages they have launched from their Buddy List, one click brings up a palette of pictures they have stored online. From there, they can drag the image into the e-mail message. Working from their Buddy Lists, users will be able to integrate their e-mail address books and synchronize messages with other devices.

“There is more dynamic use of information,” Gang said, adding that Buddy Alerts — signaling when a Buddy List member logs on — and reminders will be integrated with AOL’s contextual search and commerce databases.

With more content from its corporate parent, AOL Time Warner expected to be offered to AOL’s dial-up and broadband subscribers, vast online storage capabilities are also a major new feature in the next version.

“We’re taking more advantage of our online storage capabilities,” said Gang. “Today, AOL members can store more than 100 times their nearest competitor (can) with e-mail and pictures. This is a big advantage for us in a multi-band world. In a world where more content is stored and used by members, this will be key.”

America Online vice chairman Ted Leonsis, who also serves as head of interactive services, said IM had become a major component in the company’s strategy to beef up and integrate multiple forms of communication.

“We have a strong lead with IM,” he said, but it is “one part of a multi-band approach” of integrating messaging platforms, such as mobile Instant Messaging with cell phones and mobile devices, or “listening” to e-mail via a voice portal the company has in the works.

Leonsis also said the greater features in America Online’s embedded IM signal another way in which the company is repositioning itself not just as an ISP, but as “a valued-added Internet services company.”

The repositioning of AOL IM, and the Buddy List in particular, as a central manager for media, comes as America Online is considering other applications to integrate communications channels. The company is quietly testing a standalone IM and e-mail client, dubbed AOL Communicator, which absorbs many of the functions now found in Netscape 7.0 as adjuncts to its Navigator Web browser.

The new features of America Online’s embedded IM client also borrow from other initiatives currently in the field. For one thing, AOL’s “other” IM client, ICQ, has for some time had features to alert users to new e-mail and wireless messages.

Additionally, iChat, an application developed by AOL and Apple Computer, features drag-and-drop file-sharing and displays Buddy List member icons within the List, similarly to AOL 9.0.

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