AOL has added services to its instant messaging software in an effort to attract business users. The new AIM Business Services will include online meeting and voice conferencing features and another two features due to be announced soon.

"We have seen an explosive growth in the AIM network over the past several years, especially in the work environment, which is why we are introducing tools and services for that community," said Brian Curry, AOL's senior director of AIM network services. AOL estimates that of, approximately, 36 million active users of AIM, about 15 million use it for work purposes, he said.

Despite those figures, however, one analyst has said the new offerings could create some headaches for IT departments, especially if the pay-as-you-go billing system isn't carefully regulated.

The two services - AIM Web Meetings and AIM Voice Conferencing - are offered in partnership with WebEx and Lightbridge, respectively.

AIM Web Meetings lets an AIM user initiate an online meeting from his or her "buddy list". Participants are taken to an online site where they can collaboratively share, edit and annotate documents, share and control applications, and, of course, participate in online chats and exchange instant messages with each other.

It is not AIM providing the service or the hosting servers however; WebEx is. Participants don't have to be AIM users, and if they are AIM users, they don't have to be logged into the service. In these cases, participants are invited via e-mail.

Meanwhile, AIM Voice Conferencing is designed to simplify the process for setting up and hosting a conference call. Participants who are AIM users and who are online can be invited via an instant message. Those not online, or non-AIM users, can be invited through an automatic phone call the system places. All participants are linked via a call-out method, which means the system generates all calls and participants don't 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.

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. 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 currently available in the US and Canada, with plans to extend them to other countries later, Curry said.

"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, analyst with Forrester. Instant messaging started as a consumer phenomenon but has become a valuable tool for business as well, he said. "AOL is turning its largely consumer tool to something relevant for businesses," Root said.

IDC has found that 71 percent of instant messaging chats escalate to, for example, 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.

AOL's approach for selling these business services will appeal in particular to small and medium-size businesses, and to certain employees in large organisations, such as travelling salespeople, Forrester's Root said.

"It's a very interesting strategy. Instead of going after corporate IT, AOL is going straight to the end user. This is a powerful way to sell these services, especially to small and mid-size businesses who can't afford to pay for a big enterprise software licence. It's also good news to travelling salespeople of big companies who need to move quickly and set up meetings on their own and can't rely on centralised IT," Root said.

However, one group that might be less than thrilled about AOL's approach is corporate IT departments, especially if many users begin adopting these AOL services without alerting sysadmins, Root said. "Instead of gaining control of instant messaging as a centrally-managed service, this makes instant-messaging voice conferencing and online meetings behave more like cell 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."

Specifically, this bottom-up approach could rub IT managers the wrong way if a lot of employees start using the services and the costs get out of hand, Root said. This is something AOL will have to address if it hopes that its AIM business services will catch on with enterprises, Root said. "To make this successful in the long run, AOL has to come up with some good enterprise pricing strategy to give IT control. If it's an uncontrolled expense for IT, they will forbid its use," he said.

AOL's move is also bad news for vendors trying to sell instant messaging as an enterprise software product, such as Novell, IBM and Microsoft, because these vendors base their sales pitches on discouraging clients from using public instant messaging services for business, Root said. That argument loses strength as AOL adds business features to AIM, he said.

"AOL's strategy in general is good: not rushing the corporate market to adoption nor to compete with Microsoft and IBM. It's a bit like a Trojan horse strategy: making sure the AIM business services become indispensable to people down in the trenches," Root said.

AOL nemesis Yahoo is also trying to attract business users to its instant messaging network. Unlike AOL, Yahoo has a separate instant messaging service for business users, called Yahoo Business Messenger, which also features WebEx online meeting technology.

The difference in approaches between AOL and Yahoo here is that AOL is making its business services available to all AIM users, while Yahoo has the separate business-oriented IM service, for which it charges an annual subscription fee. Signing up for AIM is free.