America Online and Motorola announced today that they are preparing a version of the popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) application for use on Motorola's advanced wireless communications devices.
The companies only have a prototype application ready but expect to offer the service early next year--provided they agree on final terms of the partnership.
Based on the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a standard for optimizing Internet content and sending data to wireless devices, the AOL service will be available on Motorola's Timeport line of "smart phones" and two-way wireless communicators.
"A key part of our AOL Anywhere strategy is to bring our most popular services to different devices and platforms, including wireless communications," AOL president of interactive services Barry Schuler said in a statement.
Instant messaging, a chat-like text communication service, has grown in popularity in recent years. AOL alone claims 45 million instant messaging users, although there are other similar applications, including the AOL-owned ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Microsoft's MSN Messenger Service.
Last month, Microsoft also announced its intent to make MSN Messenger available to wireless users.
Even with the Internet's recent growth, most analysts expect mobile phone sales to outpace personal computer sales in the near future, providing a major opportunity for online companies.
"I think instant messaging over the phone is great," said Iain Gillot, a wireless industry analyst at market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC). "Mixing wireless and the Internet is a huge growth market."
Analysts liken wireless instant messaging to SMS, or Short Message Service, a phone-to-phone text messaging application popular in Europe. Its popularity is expected only to grow in the United States.
IDC expects the number of U.S. mobile phone service subscribers capable of receiving SMS-like messages will top 68 million by 2003, up from 9 million last year.
Although the AOL-Motorola alliance is a strong first step, IDC's Gillot believes AOL must ink a deal with a wireless carrier. "Motorola is great, but Motorola doesn't provide service," he said. "What they need now is a big carrier partner, a brand name."
Analysts also expect AOL to sign similar arrangements with other mobile phone makers such as Nokia and Ericsson to ensure that as many users as possible can access its instant messaging application.
"AOL is trying to get people addicted to [instant messaging] so you spend more time online, so you see more of their ads, so they can charge their advertisers more," Gillot said.