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AOL Adds Free E-mail to IM Service

AOL Instant Messenger users got a freebie this week: Web-based e-mail.

Now in beta in the U.S., AOL’s new AIM Mail service offers addresses ending in AIM.com, and provides two gigabytes of storage per account. It also includes spam and anti-virus protection, IMAP access for use with third-party e-mail applications and an integrated user experience between the AIM service and the user’s e-mail. And users will be able to “unsend” a message sent to an AIM or AOL user until it has been opened.

Because it’s free, the Webmail service will be supported by banner ads, AOL said.

The interface and the technology behind the new AIM Mail service are based on technology from Mailblocks, a consumer Web-based e-mail service acquired by AOL in July 2004.

AOL’s IM service is one the most popular in the country, accounting for 21.7 million active users (according to comScore Media Metrix). Approximately 1.38 billion instant messages are sent using the AIM service every day, according to AOL. Many AIM account holders aren’t even paying members of the AOL community.

More than half those users (14 million, according to AOL) trade messages at work. Earlier this year, AOL ramped up its corporate IM play by launching its Enterprise Federation Partner program. Designed to link at-work users of its free AIM service through a paid service tailored to business users, the program offers certificate-based and encrypted access to the AOL Messaging Network, including the AIM and ICQ services, as well as Netscape and Apple iChat users worldwide.

But AOL is way behind rivals Yahoo and Hotmail on the free e-mail front; both began offering free e-mail nearly a decade ago. Google premiered its Gmail service more than a year ago.

AOL’s decision to link its new Webmail service to its established IM service distinguishes the offering from its competitors’ programs.

AOL reportedly lost more than 5 million dial-up subscribers in the first quarter, a loss that lowered its membership to 21.7 million. The company is now looking to free, ad-supported services. AOL has offered Web mail service to subscribers to its fee-based online service for several years. AOL’s Netscape unit already offers a free Web mail service.

The new AIM Mail service is available now for beta testing to all AIM users who visit www.aim.com.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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