In the coming weeks, AOL will upgrade the beta version of its latest Web mail offering to include an expanded integrated instant messaging capability.
AOL also announced on Monday a new Vista-compatible instant messaging client and toolbar.
While AOL's Web mail has included instant messaging functions since 2004, the upgraded mail beta will allow users to have instant message conversations without leaving Web mail. Web mail users will see and be able to access their AOL instant messaging buddy list within the Web mail interface and conduct instant message conversations in a window that appears on the Web mail page.
They'll also be able to choose between sending a message via mail or instant message. The buddy list in the new Web mail will also highlight frequent contacts.
In February, AOL competitor Yahoo introduced similar new features into its beta mail service. Users of the Yahoo mail beta can start and conduct instant message chats from within the mail interface.
In addition to the new integrated messaging and mail features, AOL said that the new Vista-compatible AIM 6.1, which will become available later this week as a free download, will have a few new features. When a buddy signs off, users can opt to send either an offline instant message or a text message to the buddy's cell phone. Users will also be able to restrict which buddies can send messages to their cell phones.
Vista users will also get a couple of new personalization features. They'll be ale to change the color of their buddy list and other instant messaging window elements, choosing from 10 colors. In addition, users will be able to attach their buddy list to either side of their desktop.
Another new feature will let users see all linked accounts at the top of their buddy list as well as set individual away messages and mark themselves as invisible for each linked screen name. The linked accounts feature lets users switch between multiple screen names without having to log out and back in.
The new toolbar for AIM 6.1 offers users the chance to opt-in to capabilities that let them open a new instant message window and preview e-mail from the toolbar. Starting Tuesday, Internet Explorer browser users can download a stand-alone version of the Vista toolbar. The new toolbar will be available for Firefox users the week of April 2.