AOL has launched a free Web-mail service as part of an AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) upgrade.

The service was announced as a beta in May but has now gone live and will put the company into direct competition with other free Web-mail services from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

AOL has also expanded its existing fee-based service to include unlimited storage - the first Web mail provider to do so.

The free service includes spam filters, anti-virus protection, the ability to drag and drop messages into folders, and 2GB of memory. Google's Gmail offers 2.3GB, Yahoo 1GB, and Microsoft's Hotmail 250MB.

The free Web mail market is full of big companies but the popularity of AIM will undoubtedly help AOL break into it. The service is tightly integrated with AIM 5.9 - the user's e-mail address will be his or her AIM moniker followed by "@aim.com", and the user will be able to access the mail service from his or her AIM account. Furthermore, an icon will notify the user whether or not an e-mail sender or other message recipients are currently logged onto AIM.

Other features of the e-mail service include the option to delete sent messages as long as they have not yet been read and were sent to an AOL or AIM address. Users of the service also will be able to spell-check e-mail and write messages in rich text HTML.

Dial-up users will be able to access multiple screen names from multiple locations on the same account, a privilege previously reserved for high speed users only.

AIM 5.9 is available now from AOL's main website.