Update: AOL to adapt WebEx services for AIM consumers

Companies are considering extending online presentations, VOIP, video conferencing to non-business IM users

America Online and WebEx Communications are evaluating ways to adapt some of the online meeting services they currently offer to business users of AOL's AIM instant messaging network to make these services appealing to AIM consumers.

Some of the services AOL and WebEx are considering adapting for AIM consumers include online presentations, voice over IP communications, and multiparty video conferencing, an AOL executive said.

AOL plans to begin testing some of these options next week, with an eye at having a more definitive plan early next year and possibly some concrete AIM/WebEx services for consumers at some point during the first quarter, said Brian Curry, senior director of AIM Network Services at AOL.

"We're looking at the WebEx (services) we have on the business side and how they might be used on the consumer side," Curry said. "We're going to run some user testing next week, looking at ways of bringing those kinds of functions into more of the consumer use paradigms that are out there."

In June, AOL launched a suite of AIM services targeted at business users called AIM Business Services, including one called AIM Web Meetings, provided in conjunction with WebEx, which specializes in this area.

The challenge is to adapt and position the WebEx services, which are designed primarily for business users, in a way that is attractive and makes sense for AIM consumers.

"WebEx is a fairly sophisticated online tool. We're trying to figure out how much of that is really the kind of thing to put in front of consumers," Curry said. "Consumers may not need to be able to share editable documents back and forth and that sort of thing. You may just need some ability to do presentations. We're evaluating all of that right now."

The initiative to "consumerize" WebEx services is part of a plan that saw AOL this week position for AIM consumers an AIM voice conferencing service that it previously targeted for business users and was part of the June launch of AIM Business Services. The service, called AIM Voice Conferencing, is provided in conjunction with Lightbridge.

AOL wants to entice consumers toward this service and to do so is offering all AIM users 500 free minutes. Normally, the service costs $0.15 per minute per conference call participant. Up to 15 people can participate in a conference call. The service is limited to the U.S. and Canada but could be expanded to other countries depending on how it goes, Curry said.

While it's easy to see how the voice conferencing service might appeal to consumers, the appeal of WebEx services is less clear, an analyst said. "Unless I'm missing something, I don't think there's a lot of appeal for something like WebEx directly for consumers," said Michael Osterman, president of industry analysis company Osterman Research.

However, by positioning WebEx services for AIM consumers, AOL might be able to round up additional small and medium-sized business users who may not be familiar with the AIM/WebEx offerings, Osterman said. "If you do this in the consumer space and you offer 500 free minutes (for trials), then all of a sudden you're talking to a decent percentage of business users, too, who are their real market for this and who maybe will find applications for it."