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AOL gives FaceTime access to instant messenger

In a deal that could fuel its battle with Microsoft, America Online is licensing out its popular AOL Instant Messenger network, expanding its use into the customer service arena.

In a deal that could fuel its battle with Microsoft, America Online is licensing out its popular AOL Instant Messenger network, expanding its use into the customer service arena as part of a deal to be announced Monday.

AOL will allow access to its network of 45 million registered IM users to Foster City, California-based FaceTime Communications, which has developed an interface to let e-commerce and brick-and-mortar firms offer customer support via IM.

AOL was not immediately available for comment.

FaceTime said it will pay AOL an undisclosed amount under terms of the licensing agreement. AOL will use its market force to encourage widespread adoption of the IM customer service feature, which will be rolled out later this month.

AOL, which is battling with Microsoft's MSN Messenger over the lucrative IM market, could use the deal with FaceTime as a new way to harness users. The deal also will allow AOL to further test out the idea of licensing access to its network.

"FaceTime is the first company to be licensed by AOL to run business applications on their IM network," said David Hsieh, cofounder of the company.

FaceTime has licensed its proprietary customer service suite, FaceTime Message Exchange, to about 30 companies so far, who already use it to communicate with customers--answering questions about products or confirming orders--via email, instant message, and the Web.

"FaceTime is trying to make the same interfaces consumers are using for social communication for communication for business," Hsieh said. "People will be able to get real-time live assistance while they are shopping or getting customer assistance while they're on the Net."

FaceTime-enabled Web sites will have a link that says "Add this site to your Buddy List." IM users will then be able to add companies to their IM Buddy Lists and should be able to get immediate responses to their messages, Hsieh added.

AOL's latest play in the IM market will no doubt exacerbate its feud with Microsoft. MSN Messenger was supposed to let users connect with the popular AOL Instant Messenger service, but AOL has blocked the rival service, as well as those of other companies, from accessing its Buddy Lists.

Most recently, AOL said it would block users of an instant messaging service developed by software company Tribal Voice from communicating with AOL users.