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AIM takes fashion tips from Yahoo

America Online is quietly testing an update to its popular instant messaging program, using graphics to create personal looks--similar to rival Yahoo's services.

America Online has quietly begun testing an update to its popular AOL Instant Messenger, using graphics to create personal looks reminiscent of Yahoo's chat features.

With the beta of AIM 5.0, the company offers a new feature dubbed AIM Expressions that wraps a graphical skin around the messaging client. The four test images include one based on the upcoming Warner Bros. film "Eight Legged Freaks." Warner Bros. and AOL are divisions of AOL Time Warner.

The software, which is expected to officially launch later this summer, is the latest version of one of AOL's most popular products. AIM lets people swap text messages in real time and has attracted more than 150 million registered users. AOL competes with Web heavyweights Microsoft and Yahoo, which have their own messaging services.

The idea of altering the IM window is not new. Yahoo last October unveiled a new version of its Yahoo Messenger product that included animated backdrops called IMVironments. The company has sold the feature to companies, such as movie studios and record labels, which can create backdrops to promote new releases or their brands. It is unclear how much money these promotions make or whether they are effective.

For AOL Time Warner, AIM Expressions could highlight another initiative for the company to promote its media and entertainment assets through its online services. An AOL spokesman declined to comment on the business implications of the feature, but he said the division is open to working with companies outside AOL Time Warner to create these skins.

"We're creating a personalized environment for our users where they can create an extension of their personality with IM while at same time maintain functionality of the AIM client," said AOL spokesman Derick Mains.

Mains added that the idea behind AIM Expressions stemmed from the popularity of the service's "Buddy Icons," images people can download and keep on the corner of their message window.

Other additions to AIM 5.0 include content panels that let people read news headlines, sports scores and stock quotes. The beta version also features a typing indicator, which tells people when someone is typing a message to them.