AOL has become the latest instant messaging providers to move away from the business software side of things, with the announcement that it is dropping its AIM Enterprise Gateway and will migrate users onto a similar product by IMlogic.

Its main rival, Yahoo, announced a similar decision at the end of last week when it discontinued Yahoo Business Messenger - again, an IM service designed for corporate use. Both companies remain interested in the corporate market but want to focus on providing services and not software.

Millions of people at home and at work use the free instant messaging services from Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft. Specific requirements from corporations to audit and manage their employees' instant messaging use prompted the creation of so-called gateway software.

AOL launched the AIM Enterprise Gateway in November 2002, a response to sysadmins' request for "a control point between our network and the AIM client on their employees' desktops," said Brian Curry, AOL's senior director of AIM Network Services. "This was the product to do this."

FaceTime Communications developed the gateway for AOL, and at the same time, AOL also partnered with its competitors, Akonix and IMlogic, to certify their products' compatibility with the AIM network. Over time, it became apparent to AOL that it made little sense for it to continue to develop, market and support an enterprise instant messaging gateway when it could simply partner with vendors that specialize in this type of software, Curry said.

AOL will continue to focus on its instant messaging network, which boasts about 36 million active users, about 15 million of whom use it for work purposes, he said. It will also continue to beef up the set of instant-messaging services for corporate users, called AIM Business Services, which it introduced earlier this month and pitched directly at employees, and not to IT departments.

With regard to current users of the AIM Enterprise Gateway, they will be given a free license to IMlogic's IM Manager gateway software and a free migration service and installation of its IM Linkage IM development software. "The IMlogic products will cover our existing users for their current functionality and beyond," AOL's Curry said.

Selling and supporting products to corporate IT departments is a completely different experience than selling services to consumers, and AOL, like Yahoo, was entering uncharted territory by trying to pitch their instant messaging products directly to corporations, said Nate Root, a Forrester Research analyst.

"Overall, I think it's a good move by AOL to back out from that space. From the outside, it might appear like AOL is retreating from the business market, but I don't see it that way. This market was never very successful for AOL," Root said. "They had very little resources and energy invested in this market, compared with their consumer service, which is a lot more successful and the right thing for them to focus on."

AOL's choice of IMlogic for this migration might seem strange, considering they had a close relationship with FaceTime, but the reasons for choosing one over the other probably have more to do with business considerations than technical considerations, since both the FaceTime and IMlogic products offer comparable functionality, Root said.

Microsoft, which also runs an instant messaging network and service aimed at consumers called MSN Messenger, is in a different position from AOL and Yahoo, according to Root. The company has experience in the corporate space and seems committed to its Live Communication Server, which is instant messaging software for corporations, he said.