NEW YORK – Its subscription business in decline, America Online Inc. is launching yet another product on the open Web: a free, ad-supported e-mail service tied to its instant-messaging platform.
Users of AOL Instant Messenger will be able to send and receive mail with “aim.com” addresses using their existing AIM screen names.
Initially, users will need the latest version of AIM software, available as a “beta” test download for Windows computers beginning today. Ultimately, they’ll be able to send and receive mail from any Web browser.
Each account comes with 2 gigabytes of storage – comparable with Google Inc.’s Gmail and more generous than the free offerings from Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.’s Hotmail and even AOL’s flagship subscription service.
And unlike AOL’s main accounts, which keep new messages for 27 days and messages already read for up to a week unless users actively save them, AIM mail never expires.
AIM mail will also incorporate a few features unique to AOL until now: the ability to check whether AOL and AIM recipients have opened a message and to delete an unopened message from the recipients’ inbox (This won’t work with e-mail sent to users of other services).
The Web-based interface will also have drag-and-drop capabilities, allowing users to sort mail without having to check multiple boxes and hit a “move” button.
“It’s not clear what the demand is for yet another free e-mail product, but this is certainly a very competitive offering,” Jupiter Research analyst David Card said.
One key difference between the AOL and AIM mail offerings will be in ad placement: When checking mail, an ad appears on the bottom if you have the paid AOL account but more prominently on top if you use the free AIM service.
As AOL breaks from its historical “walled-garden” strategy of exclusivity and makes more of its offerings free to non-subscribers, it risks furthering declines in paid subscriptions.
In the United States, AOL lost more than 500,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2005 and about 5 million since its peak of 26.7 million in September 2002.
Card said he doubts AOL will market the AIM mail service heavily to its existing paid subscribers.
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