AOL has begun publicly testing AIM Pro PE (Professional Edition), a version of its AIM instant-messaging service for workplace users, the ISP announced yesterday.

AIM Pro PE, designed for individual professionals, departments and small to medium-sized businesses, is expected to launch in final form late in this year's third quarter.

Developed in conjunction with WebEx, AIM Pro PE can be downloaded and tested for free here. However, it will carry a subscription fee after the beta period ends.

AIM Pro PE features tighter security than the consumer version and an ad-free interface. It lets users conduct voice and video conferences and web meetings. It is integrated with Microsoft's Outlook.

Next week, AOL plans to launch a separate beta test for the EIM (Enterprise Instant Messaging) edition of AIM Pro, which is designed for use in large corporations and includes IT management and administration features. AIM Pro EIM was co-developed with WebEx.

AOL announced AIM Pro PE and AIM Pro EIM in February.

Although the following features aren't included in the beta version now, AIM Pro will also offer antivirus file scanning, auditing and logging of chat sessions, and integration with the AIM Phoneline internet-telephony service.

IM has gained worldwide popularity in the past 10 years as a consumer online service. Along the way, it has become a nightmare for many companies as employees install the free IM software applications on their work PCs. These employees can inadvertently open up corporate networks to security vulnerabilities and create legal liabilities by sending confidential work information over these public IM services.

Services such as AIM Pro are designed to give businesses an IM option that has the security, collaboration and IT-management features they require.

Currently, about 135 million people use IM at work, and that number is expected to grow to about 477 million by 2009, according to AOL.