America Online is making its popular Aim instant messaging service more palatable for business users.
AOL will launch an online meeting and voice conferencing features in a suite called Aim Business Services.
AOL estimated that of the about 36 million active users of Aim, about 15 million use it for work purposes, he said.
AIM Web Meetings and Aim Voice Conferencing are offered in partnership with suppliers which specialise in each area: WebEx Communications for online meetings and Lightbridge for voice conferencing.
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 participate in online chats and exchange instant messages with each other. Participants are invited via e-mail.
The underlying platform on which the online meeting takes place is provided by WebEx.
Aim Voice Conferencing is designed to significantly simplify the process for setting up and hosting a conference call.
Participants who are Aim users can be invited via an instant message, while other 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 do not 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 service also due to be announced.
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 already available in the US and Canada, with plans to extend them to other countries later.
"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 analyst.
Instant messaging started as a consumer phenomenon but has become a valuable tool for business as well, he said.
IDC has found that 71% of instant messaging chats lead to 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.
"Instead of gaining control of instant messaging as a centrally-managed service, this makes instant-messaging voice conferencing and online meetings behave more such as mobile 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."
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service