AIM Beta Gets Rich with Features

In response to last month's discovery of a buffer overflow vulnerability in its instant messaging client, America Online is steering users to a new beta version of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) to address the problem.

The AIM 5.9 beta release offers up a number of enhancements; however, there is one catch: if users want to experience AIM at its fullest they must pay up.

Keeping with the tradition set by version 5.5, AOL is continuing to advance the evolution of AIM by adding premium options. Some of the newest features in AIM include expanded options to personalize the client, new ways to manage and share digital images, streamlined access to popular features and the AIM toolbar.

Mobile phones are a prime example of how personalization services can become a steady stream of revenue. AOL's plan to draw revenue from AIM is comparative to the strategy that is already in play by wireless service providers where customers purchase ring tones, pictures and other add-ons to personalize their cell phones.

According to the Yankee Group, wireless services providers earned a gross income of $80 million in 2003 from the sale of ring tones alone.

In order to cash in on the personalization of AIM, AOL has introduced year-long and monthly subscription options for access to their collection of more than 7,000 buddy wallpapers, buddy sounds, smileys and 2-D buddy icons for $9.95 USD and $1.95 USD. AOL'S animated "SuperBuddy" icons may be purchased at a cost of cost $1.95 each, or $4.95 for a lot of three.

While many wireless providers must share revenue and content with partners -- often serving as a billing mechanism rather than a content provider -- AOL owns all expressions except those that use licensed marks and retains most of its profits while keeping distribution costs low.

"If AOL does this right, with over 100 million unique users, they could probably generate revenue from this. Which is more than they did before when everything was for free," Radicati Group analyst Genelle Hung told BetaNews. "Naturally it is way too late in the game to charge for IM and basic features (file transfer etc.) as users have had all that for free for so long that there would be some kind of "revolution," but it is probably about the right time to finally try to make some money from IM."

AOL is not alone in its decision to begin charge for IM services. Microsoft and Yahoo! offer games with their IM clients at a cost and Microsoft sells Avatars in the South Korean market.

Another area that AOL has cycled its development resources toward is digital imagery. With AIM 5.9 "You've Got Pictures" (YGP) allows users to organize, search for, print, edit, and access photos. AOL has included its Universal Picture Finder so that users can locate pictures wherever they are stored whether that be on their hard drive, on the TGP Web service or on a digital camera.

Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn revision of Windows is expected to have rich search capabilities baked into the operating system that will make it easier to find photos.

Photos uploaded to the YGP service can be shared on the Web or viewed as a photo album with customized backgrounds, layouts and captions. Users also have the ability to display images with screensavers and slideshows.

Other key features include simple photo editing to reduce imperfections such as "red eye" and print options for home computers with the additional option to purchase prints from the Web.

AOL has also worked to simplify the client. A new addition to the buddy list called AIM Fun Tools reduces the amount of clicks that are necessary to reach the client's features and makes them more transparent. Some of the features found in Fun Tools include: You’ve Got Pictures, Greeting, Mobile IM, Video IM, as well as ScreenName linking.

Lastly, AOL has developed the AIM Toolbar. The AIM Toolbar is an optional feature that can be selected during the client's installation. The toolbar places an emphasis on Internet search with one click access to AOL Search and also includes a built-in pop-up blocker. AOL has also built in one click access to through the mini-browser, games, personals, weather and instant messaging with a new feature called "AIM Running Man."

AIM Running Man launches the AIM service when the client is not yet loaded and opens a pull-down menu so that users can send instant messages or change personal options.

The beta release of AIM 5.9 is available for download now, with the final version expected to be released some time this fall.

After publication, America Online released a version of AIM 5.5 that patches the buffer overrun issue reported in an advisory by iDEFENSE Inc.

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