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AOL gives away messaging

The online service posts to its Web site messaging software previously available only to its members.

America Online (AOL) is offering all Net users a service previously reserved for its 8 million members.

The company said today that it has posted a limited beta version of its AOL Instant Messenger service to its Web site.

The service lets users know when friends and family members are online and ready to receive messages. It includes two features: Instant Message, which lets users know the moment they receive a message to speed response time, and Buddy List, a feature that allows users to set up a list of friends, family members, and business associates and receive notification when they are online.

"With AOL Instant Messenger, AOL members and other Internet users will now be able to communicate 'instantly' with family and friends as soon as they spot them online," said David Gang, senior vice president of product marketing at AOL Networks, in a statement. "For the business user, AOL Instant Messenger improves productivity helping colleagues get in touch quickly as they exchange important information.

A company representative said the product bypasses email. Instead, users can check their Buddy List each time they go online and send instant messages by using options that appear in a pop-up window on their screens.

Before now, the features worked only with other AOL members. Now that the company is offering the services across the Net, AOL said its members can use a feature called "knock-knock" to screen unwanted messages sent from Internet users.

The knock-knock feature works by first informing the user that a message has arrived and who it is from. Before delivering it to the screen, however, the user must give the go-ahead.

The Instant Messenger is scheduled to exit beta testing and begin shipping sometime this summer, the AOL spokesman said.

AOL subscribers can sign up their friends by filling out a form online that instructs AOL to send them email invitations, the company said.

Instant Messenger only runs on Windows 95, according to the company. Windows 3.1, Macintosh, and Java versions are slated to follow later this year.