AOL to adapt WebEx for AIM personal customers

AOL and WebEx are exploring ways to make some of the online meeting services they offer to business users of AOL's AIM instant...

AOL and WebEx are exploring ways to make some of the online meeting services they offer to business users of AOL's AIM instant messaging network appealing to personal users as well.

Some of the services AOL and WebEx are considering adapting for AIM consumers include online presentations, voice over IP communications and multiparty videoconferencing.

Brian Curry, senior director of AIM network services at AOL, said the company planned to begin testing some of these options next week. AOL hopes to put together a more definitive plan early next year and possibly have some concrete AIM/WebEx services for personal customers at some point during the first quarter.

"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."

A suite of AIM services for business users, launched in June, includes one called AIM Web Meetings, provided in conjunction with WebEx, which specialises in the area.

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

The "consumerising" of WebEx services is part of a plan that saw AOL this week position for personal customers an AIM voice conferencing service previously targeted at business users. To entice personal customers to the service, AOL is offering all AIM users 500 free minutes. Up to 15 people can participate in a conference call. The service is currently limited to North America but could be expanded to other countries if successful.

But analyst Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, was not convinced that WebEx services would entice personal customers. "Unless I'm missing something, I don't think there's a lot of appeal for something like WebEx directly for consumers," he said.

Instead, he thought positioning WebEx services for AIM personal customers might let AOL round up additional small and medium-sized business users unfamiliar with the AIM/WebEx offerings.

"If you do this in the consumer space and you offer 500 free minutes, then all of a sudden you're talking to a decent percentage of business users too, who are AOL's real market for this and who maybe will find applications for it."

Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service

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