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Free Calls From AIM

First came free e-mail addresses, and then came free IM accounts. Later this month, Dulles, Va.-based AOL plans to offer free phone numbers through its instant messenger (AIM).

AIM Phoneline brings Internet phone calling to the more than 40 million AOL instant messenger users.

Slated to begin May 16 in 50 U.S. markets, the service will offer a free base of features along with a $14.95 fee-based premium option, according to an AOL spokesperson.

Based on AIM Triton, AIM Phoneline augments AOL's TotalTalk VoIP offering.

AOL will offer Phoneline users free local phone numbers enabling unlimited inbound calls from traditional phones, cell phones and PCs.

Cell phone users can receive text messages alerting them when an IM-based call is received, as well as listen to Phoneline voicemail.

Along with free phone numbers, AOL will provide AIM users free voicemail. Calls not answered are saved as MP3 files and sent to an AOL or AIM mailbox, according to a company statement.

While the differences between AOL's VoIP plans "are kind of subtle," the company wants to be sure all its bases are covered, according to Joe Laszlo, analyst with JupiterResearch.

When it comes to voice-enabled IM, the bases are full, with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft all offering IM applications with PC-calling features.

And Skype, noticing the inroads made by IM companies, last week pushed back, offering a 100-person conference call feature.

So AOL needs to stand out from the pack.

"We've seen that the mating of IM and VoIP has been very powerful," Will Stofega, an IDC analyst, told internetnews.com.

But Laszlo isn't sure how much non-AOL users will pay attention. The free phone number is only a short-term differentiator. While PC-based VoIP is in its early stages, in two to three years, "this type of service will only grow more popular," said the analyst.

VoIP service may interest only a fraction of the base of IM users, he continued. Likewise, the analyst said voice-enabled IM will only marginally help AOL's overall popularity.