AIM Dials Up Voice Conferencing

What do families, friends, soccer teams and book clubs have in common? America Online wants them to keep in contact with a new consumer version of its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) Voice Conferencing Service (AVC). The service is a based upon an existing voice conferencing service that is offered by AIM Business Services.

AOL is kicking off AVC's consumer availability with a sales promotion reminiscent of its ISP marketing tact, which offers customers the incentive of 500 free minutes within 30 days of registration.

AOL's brand message is that AVC is a modern take on the "party line." AIM users can invite up to 15 buddies to participate in a conference call directly from their Buddy List. AVC is presence aware, so users who are online can be instantly pooled together to participate, but anyone can be added to the call roster directly by phone number. Users are dragged and dropped by Screen Name into the dialing interface after the service is invoked though the Communications Tools panel in AIM 5.9.

When users receive invitations to join into a call session, a Web browser is invoked and they are prompted to enter in a standard telephone number. At the present time, outbound invitations cannot be sent by mobile users due to unresolved technical difficulties; however, mobile users may receive invitations from desktop users.

"There's certainly synergy between conference calling and IM because of the immediacy both types of communication share. IM presence adds something more, because it's so easy to round up friends online and use AOL's service to bring them into a teleconference," commented Joe Wilcox, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "AOL is right to look for ways of extending IM's utility by offering additional, for-fee services."

According to AOL, the service dials out using LightBridge GroupTalk software and does not require dial-ins or PIN numbers.

In a demonstration with AOL, a toll free number called BetaNews. Long distance charges do not apply, but airtime will be used on calls made to a mobile phone. Customers are charged 15 cents US per minute of usage; all minutes are pre-paid. Minutes may be purchased in lots of $20, $50 or $100 USD, and are tabulated on a per minute, per user basis.

Jupiter's Wilcox questioned the cost structure, saying, "I'm not convinced the pricing would work for the consumer market, particularly the way AOL envisions the service's use. Bringing together, say, the soccer group for a conference call could get quite expensive at 15 cents per minute per person. The soccer group could just as easily daisy-chain conference calling among their different cell phones to achieve similar capability for much less money."

Although it may not be minute by minute, AOL has been seeding AIM with more features each week. As first reported by BetaNews, AOL has extended AIM presence awareness to Microsoft Outlook, and has reeled up premium video for AIM through the AIM Today browser.

The AIM Voice Conferencing Service launches this week and can only be accessed through AIM 5.9.

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