America Online says that it's taking baby steps to finally join (AIM) and at the IM hip. Baby steps is right.
The most recent of AIM 5.1 takes a very quiet, very small step towards interoperability with ICQ, the mega-IM client that AOL acquired in 1998. Without any fanfare, AIM 5.1, says AOL, now allows users to add ICQ buddies to the AIM contact list, then see that they're online, and send them messages. ICQ users, however, are still in the cold; although they're supposed to receive messages and be able to reply, they can't put AIM pals on their buddy list nor initiate a conversation.
We didn't have quite the experience that the beta promised. Although AIM 5.1 let us add ICQ users to our buddy list--AIM and its servers were smart enough to recognize the ICQ numerical addresses and ask us to assign them more memorable, human names--when we tested the AIM-to-ICQ connection, we struck out. ICQ users didn't show as being online even when they were, and we were unable to send messages to them--ever.
That may change, of course, since the work that AOL is doing to bring together its two clients is primarily on the server end. For now, however, the best thing about AIM 5.1 is that it integrates with Microsoft's Outlook Express e-mail client (but not the more powerful ) under to show your buddy list in the Contact panel. Interestingly, AIM simply replaces the contacts normally inserted there by Windows Messenger, so you can't see buddies from both AIM and Windows Messenger. That's a low blow!
Other than the slow, small steps AOL is taking, AIM 5.1 doesn't appear to offer more features or fewer ads than the in-release AIM 5.0. Considering that and the prowess of the $25 or even the for-free Trillian .74, there's no reason to stoop as low as AIM. If you want working communication between AIM and ICQ, Trillian remains the real deal--at least for now. Check back for our full review of the final release of AIM 5.1.