AOL To Offer Free AIM E-Mail Service

Starting Thursday, people downloading the AIM 5.9 instant messenger beta can also start trying out the new mail service complete with two gigabytes of free storage.

AIM users can use their familiar screen names appended with the suffix so JohnDoe on AIM becomes [email protected]. That alone may be a huge advantage for AOL. Some estimate AOL has 20 to 21 million active monthly AIM users. When AIM Express users are factored in, that number grows to 30 million.

The same array of anti-spam and anti-virus tools that guard paid accounts will also protect the free accounts, an AOL executive said Tuesday.

"This will be a very clean inbox with virtually no spam," pledged Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president and general manager for AIM and ICQ for America Online, Dulles, Virg.

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AIM mail supports the IMAP protocol and so can be used with familiar Outlook and other IMAP-compliant e-mail clients, he added. The mail service integrates presence so users can see right in the header if the sender of a message is online at any given time. Users can also retract a sent message as long as it hasn't been opened and can check the message status to see what time they were read.

AOL also promises powerful search capabilities that will sort through headers and subject lines but message bodies as well, he said. The revenue opportunity for AOL is selling advertisers access to an attractive demographic base of users.

Many solution providers use AIM to communicate with colleagues, customers and vendors, so this AIM mail could become a good secondary mail account, observers said. AOL site.

"This would probably get me to switch from Yahoo, it all depends if they kill me with ads," said Rob Wolfe, president of AvcomEast, a Silver Spring, Md. solution provider who relies on AIM for fast communication.

IDC analyst Mark Levitt agreed. While most AIM users got started on it at home or school, many of them have taken it with them to work.

"Tons of business people use AIM," Levitt noted. And once people get used to an integrated IM/e-mail experience at home, they might want the same thing at work, something that Microsoft is starting to attack with Live Communications Server 2005 and Office integration, and IBM Lotus is doing with Sametime/Domino integration.

"At the end of the day, the home user and work user is the same person," said Palihapitiya.

This service will take on Google Gmail, Yahoo and Microsoft Hotmail freebie offerings.

People can download the new AIM client and e-mail beta starting Wednesday from this AOL site.

Last week the company said it is adding free blogging tools to AIM 5.9 as well.

The new AIM 5.9 will also integrate its own browser with tagged browsing capability, thumbnail previews. The company has also stripped out WildTangent and Weatherbug software from this release and replaced the standard AIM toolbar with an optional AOL toolbar.

In addition to AIM 5.9, AOL has started talking about a next-generation "Triton" client which went to beta late last month.

This story was updated Wednesday morning with the new availability date of the free mail beta.