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AOL adds fees to IM feature

America Online is charging nonmembers $1.95 a month, or $9.95 a year, for its "AIM Expressions," which lets people decorate their buddy clients and chat windows with images.

America Online confirmed that it has started charging nonmembers a fee to download decorative graphics, or "skins," to AOL Instant Messenger.

AOL is charging $1.95 a month, or $9.95 a year, for its "AIM Expressions," at the end of March, AOL spokesman Derrick Mains said. Launched in July 2002, the product lets AIM users decorate their buddy clients and chat windows with graphics from popular movies or rock bands and other images.

The move highlights AOL's ongoing crusade to tap into new revenue streams in the face of plummeting online advertising and declining subscriber growth.

AOL executives have earmarked paid services as a way to help turn around the company's fortunes. Since then, AOL has launched a voice mail service that costs $5.95 a month on top of its standard dial-up subscription of $23.90 a month.

The company is taking a step into the unknown by adding a subscription fee to its IM application. Until now, Internet leaders AOL, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo have resisted charging for any part of their IM services, fearing that fees could spark defections into the arms of competitors. Yahoo has introduced IMVironments, an animated feature that lets marketers embed their images or products into its highly frequented messenger service.

The new AOL subscription, first reported by, will include unlimited downloads of AIM Expressions. Existing AOL subscribers will not have to pay a fee.