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AOL buddies up to increase IM wingspan

AOL strikes a deal that could turn Web sites into instant messaging playgrounds, letting people know if their buddies who may not be using AIM software are online, among other things.

America Online has struck a deal with a developer that could turn Web sites into vast instant messaging playgrounds, the companies said Thursday.

Alexandria, Va.-based PresenceWorks will use its "presence technology" to embed AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) capabilities into Web sites. For example, putting the technology on Monster.com, a job search Web site, would allow job seekers to chat with potential employers who could leave their AIM contact information on the site. Shoppers on eBay, meanwhile, could interact with sellers, and the list of e-mail senders in a Microsoft Outlook in-box could be turned into one long "buddy list."

Currently, someone using IM technology must compile addresses to form a buddy list, which shows whether people are offline or online and available to chat. With the new embedded technology, people can contact scores of strangers using instant messaging. PresenceWorks' software embeds "presence information"--signals that show when someone is online--into the directories and databases driving Web sites and consumer Web directories.

The technology is expected to "drive subscriptions, increase customer retention, speed communications, increase transactions, enhance service, and save on communications costs" for Web sites, Matt Smith, PresenceWorks' founder and CEO, said in a statement. Financial details of the deal were not released.

The news is likely to boost AIM, which AOL claims is the most widely used IM network, with more than 140 million registered users. Microsoft and Yahoo also offer popular instant messengers, but their IM technologies are not interoperable.

Smaller companies such as PalTalk and Trillian have tried to force interoperability on AOL only to have their service shut out or their subscribers denied access to the AOL network. But Trillian users have been successfully interoperating with AOL for over a month now.

"Presence is the key to making AIM use ubiquitous," said Raul Mujica, vice president of AOL's AIM division.