AOL adds business services to AIM

Online meeting, voice conferencing part of new suite

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</head> <body> <div class="rxbodyfield"> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">America Online Inc. is making its popular AIM instant messaging service more palatable for business users, although one analyst said the new offerings could create some headaches for IT departments.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">On Thursday, AOL will announce new online meeting and voice conferencing features for its service, as well as the new suite they will belong to, called AIM Business Services. That suite is expected eventually to grow beyond the two initial features being announced this week.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">"We have seen an explosive growth in the AIM network over the past several years, especially in the work environment, which is why we are introducing tools and services for that community," said Brian Curry, AOL's senior director of AIM network services. AOL estimates that of the about 36 million active users of AIM, about 15 million use it for work purposes, he said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">The two services are called AIM Web Meetings and AIM Voice Conferencing, and are offered in partnership with a pair of vendors that specialize in each area: WebEx Communications Inc. for online meetings and Lightbridge Inc. for voice conferencing.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">AIM Web Meetings lets an AIM user initiate an online meeting from his or her "buddy list," which is the main AIM interface. Participants in a Web meeting are taken to an online site where they can collaboratively share, edit and annotate documents, share and control applications, and, of course, participate in online chats and exchange instant messages with each other. To get invited, participants don't have to be AIM users, and if they are AIM users, they don't have to be logged into the service; in these cases, participants are invited via e-mail. The underlying platform on which the online meeting takes place is provided by WebEx.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">Meanwhile, AIM Voice Conferencing is designed to significantly simplify the process for setting up and hosting a conference call. Participants who are AIM users and who are online can be invited via an instant message, while those who are either not online or not AIM users can be invited through an automatic phone call the system places to them. All participants are linked via a call-out method, which means that the system generates all calls and participants don't need to call in, eliminating the need for them to remember the call's phone number and their access codes. The underlying technology is Lightbridge's GroupTalk, a new service that is also being announced Thursday.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">Access to these two services will be provided via buttons placed in the buddy list interface of the AIM users who sign up for these services, which will be made available to all AIM users. For both services, the user initiating the Web meeting or the voice conference covers the costs, which are calculated based on the number of participants and the length of the session. The AIM business services are currently available in the U.S. and Canada, with plans to extend them to other countries later, Curry said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">"It's a very positive announcement for AOL, because they need to find more ways to make themselves relevant to a corporate audience," said Nate Root, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">Instant messaging started as a consumer phenomenon but has become a valuable tool for business as well, he said. "AOL is turning its largely consumer tool to something relevant for businesses," Root said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">IDC has found that 71 percent of instant messaging chats escalate to, for example, an in-person meeting, a Web meeting or a phone call, said Robert Mahowald, an IDC analyst. Consequently, AOL is increasing the usefulness of its AIM service by letting users begin and end a conference call or a Web meeting from within an AIM session, he said. "AOL is doing the right thing by offering advanced telephony and Web features to all its AIM users," he said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">AOL's approach for selling these business services will appeal in particular to small and medium-size businesses, and to certain employees in large organizations, such as traveling salespeople, Forrester's Root said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">"It's a very interesting strategy. Instead of going after corporate IT, AOL is going straight to the end user. This is a powerful way to sell these services, especially to small and mid-size businesses who can't afford to pay for a big enterprise software license. It's also good news to traveling salespeople of big companies who need to move quickly and set up meetings on their own and can't rely on centralized IT," Root said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">However, one group that might be less than thrilled about AOL's approach is corporate IT departments, especially if many users begin adopting these AOL services without alerting information systems (IS) managers, Root said. "Instead of gaining control of instant messaging as a centrally-managed service, this makes instant-messaging voice conferencing and online meetings behave more like cell phones, where employees use them and later bill back the services to the company," Root said. "So this is a great move by AOL but trouble for IS departments struggling to get a hold of instant messaging. This particular announcement doesn't directly address the needs of IT departments at all."</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">Specifically, this bottom-up approach could rub IT managers the wrong way if a lot of employees start using these services and the costs get out of hand, Root said. This is something AOL will have to address if it hopes that its AIM business services will catch on with enterprises, Root said. "To make this successful in the long run, AOL has to come up with some good enterprise pricing strategy to give IT control. If it's an uncontrolled expense for IT, they will forbid its use," he said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">AOL's move is also bad news for vendors trying to sell instant messaging as an enterprise software product, such as Novell Inc., IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., because these vendors base their sales pitches on discouraging clients from using public instant messaging services for business, Root said. That argument loses strength as AOL adds business features to AIM, he said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">"AOL's strategy in general is good: not rushing the corporate market to adoption nor to compete with Microsoft (Corp.) and IBM (Corp.) It's a bit like a Trojan horse strategy: making sure the AIM business services become indispensable to people down in the trenches," Root said.</p> <p class="ArticleBody" page="1">AOL nemesis Yahoo Inc. is also trying to attract business users to its instant messaging network. Unlike AOL, Yahoo has a separate instant messaging service for business users, called Yahoo Business Messenger, which also features WebEx online meeting technology. The difference in approaches between AOL and Yahoo here is that AOL is making its business services available to all AIM users, while Yahoo has the separate business-oriented IM service, for which it charges an annual subscription fee. Signing up for AIM is free.</p> </div> </body> </html></article>
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