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AOL offers free blog services to general public

Company unlocks gate to its blog pages, allowing anyone who signs up for its free IM service to access AOL Journals.

America Online has expanded access to its blog pages, offering anyone who signs up for AOL's free instant-messenger service the opportunity to create, read and post to the online journals, the company announced on Friday.

Company officials said that while signing up for an IM screen is a requirement for access to the previously proprietary AOL Journals section, Journals users are not required to download AOL's client software to access the screen name. The blogs can be created in public or private modes, allowing individuals to choose whom they wish to share their online journals with.

Launched in 2003, the blog pages have since attracted more than half a million users, AOL representatives said. The company expects that by opening the service to a far wider audience, it will see that figure rise quickly.

"The blogging phenomenon grows stronger each day and has especially taken hold among our community of members," Bill Schreiner, AOL's vice president of community, said in a statement. "AOL Journals is one of our most popular community-building tools and has created an active forum where users can share their thoughts and opinions and participate in online discourse."

The move marks the latest effort by the company to expand beyond its base of paying Internet services customers. For years it has offered AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service for free to anyone willing to sign up for an account and download AOL's desktop software. The company estimates that there are more than 20 million active users of the IM service. AOL's primary rivals, Google and Yahoo, also maintain free blogging sites.

Among the new features offered in the expanded blog service is the ability to update the journals directly from AIM, including the option to do so via mobile devices. The system also boasts improved navigation, tools to block individuals from using blogs to spam for products, and streamlined photo uploads.

In addition, AOL, a subsidiary of media giant Time Warner, is adding support for the Really Simple Syndication 2.0 standard to the Journals pages. RSS feeds allow people to distribute their work directly to others who have signed up to receive the updates. AOL customers can also sign up to receive automated updates whenever something has been changed on their blogs. The updates are delivered via online alerts, e-mail and text messages sent to mobile devices.

Earlier this week AOL took the wraps off of its next-generation IM application, a product code named Triton, which aims to further blend text and voice conversations with games, file- and photo-sharing.