Called AIM 5.5, the launch signals the first time AOL has allowed live video conferencing on its popular IM client. The announcement also highlights an extension of AOL and Apple's deal in July 2002 to let their respective customers exchange text messages. AOL and iChat users now can also set up video conferencing with one another.
In addition to supporting Webcams, AIM 5.5 lets users play video games against each another. The software lets people sign into AIM once and view buddy lists for each screen name identity.
The new AIM marks its first revision since the federal government lifted its restrictions on the popular software last year. In August 2003, the Federal Communications Commission removed rules that would have penalized AOL for launching high-bandwidth services, such as streaming video, on AIM.
The FCC originally imposed its restrictions in 2001 as a condition to approving AOL's acquisition of Time Warner. FCC officials said they would force AOL to open the AIM network to competitors if it launched "advanced high-speed" applications such as streaming video or audio.
AOL executives at the time, and until recently, stood firm on their belief that their user base had little interest in IM video. But competition from rivals such as Microsoft and Yahoo, coupled with more households upgrading to broadband, helped convince AOL to step into video IM.
Despite linking up with Apple's iChat users, it's unlikely that AOL will offer the same openness with PC users anytime soon. Ed Fish, AOL's general manager for desktop messaging, said the company is still concerned about issues involving security and privacy for PC-based IM clients.
"It's more complicated, yes," Fish said in reference to solving these issues on PCs versus the Macintosh.
Apple first added video-messaging features when it released a test version of iChat AV last June. The company shipped a final version of iChat AV last October when it released version 10.3 Panther of Mac OS X. The iChat application made its debut as a text-only IM program in 2002 as part of Mac OS X version 10.2 Jaguar.
To support AIM users, Apple has released iChat version 2.1 as a free public beta.
AOL said it will continue to develop Mac versions of its own AIM client but that currently video instant messaging is supported only through iChat and not the Mac AIM client. The company said it is still evaluating whether to add video support to its own Mac client.