AOL, WebEx Collaborate

The companies hope to parlay their respective strengths in instant mess- aging and Web conferencing into a low-cost AIM Pro service. Versions for small and midsize businesses and enterprises are due in the second quarter, said Brian Curry, vice president of premium and subscription services at AOL, Dulles, Va. Pricing was not disclosed but Curry and Bill Heil, president of WebEx, said the service will be an inexpensive monthly subscription.

Solution providers say this is not unexpected. “The portals—AOL, MSN, Google—are further encroaching on Web conferencing … and will offer multiparty video/audio calls as a part of their enhanced service,” said Ken Winell, former CEO of Totowa, N.J.-based Econium, now part of Visalign.

“WebEx, a market leader in Web conferencing, [wants to push] its enterprise services to a larger market, while AOL is probably hoping to [push] more corporate use of its broadband offering to offset the losses from dial-up services,” he said.

The AIM Pro client will resemble a user&'s current AOL Instant Messenger box and can be used to quickly create online conferences that are fully encrypted, and then are also archived, audited and logged for compliance reasons.

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The infrastructure pairs AOL&'s “clearinghouse servers”—which translate protocols between AIM, ICQ and Apple iChat users, and outside IM networks—with Santa Clara, Calif.-based WebEx&'s MediaTone network.

“We would expect people to replace their current AIM client” with the AIM Pro superset, said Curry.

The service, now in early test phase, promises VoIP-based audio conferencing, video as well as calendar integration. It also would work with an enterprise&'s existing directories. The goal is to ease communication between colleagues across firewalls without having to wangle IT permission.

While IM from AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and now Google has taken consumers by storm, many companies have not deployed “business” offerings.

Companies—and their partners—will be able to sell the service. ISV partners, for example, could embed it in their own line-of-business or other applications to offer integral conferencing, Heil noted.