AOL deal will embed IM in sites, applications

Users of Web portals, shared-interest sites, auction sites and corporate applications could see which participants are logged in to America Online Inc.’s AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), and contact them, through a deal between AOL and PresenceWorks Inc.

As instant messaging (IM) becomes more ubiquitous, visitors to Web sites want to be able to contact a fellow visitor immediately, according to Matt Smith, chief executive officer of PresenceWorks. For example, a shopper on an auction site may want to converse in real time with a seller, and a participant in a dating site may want to start up a real-time chat, he said.

“We’re extending (AOL’s) brand and their instant messaging presence into turf where it’s never been seen before,” Smith said.

At Web sites that use PresenceWorks’ software to provide a link to AIM, any current AIM user will be able to find out if another AIM user is available and then click on a button to start chatting with that user via AIM. The AIM software must be installed and running on each user’s machine. Users without AIM can click on the button to send a one-way instant message suggesting another method of communication.

PresenceWorks’ software can be used with any IM service, according to Smith. The agreement is the first such deal by PresenceWorks, which is now in discussions with other instant messaging vendors for similar arrangements, Smith said. Under the deal with AOL, PresenceWorks can license its software for any Web site or application. For smaller Web sites, PresenceWorks will build and host the function itself, Smith said. AOL, a division of AOL Time Warner Inc., in New York, will work closely with PresenceWorks in finding sites that want to link users to AIM, said Catherine Corre, communications director for AOL Web Properties. AOL has seen demand for this type of feature from Web sites, Corre said.

The PresenceWorks software can be integrated into the user database software for a Web site or a corporate application. It lets operators add a field for each user on the database that indicates whether the user is logged into a particular IM service. The software also lets others contact that user via IM, through the Web site or corporate application rather than through the IM service’s graphical interface.

PresenceWorks’ software would allow a site to display IM information about all its registered users, and entice users to pay for a membership level that lets them send instant messages to other visitors just by clicking a button on the site, Smith said. Site operators have the flexibility to let users opt in or out of the service and choose who can contact them or see their IM availability.

Initial interest is expected to come mostly from Web site operators, Smith said.

However, the software also can increase the usefulness and ubiquity of IM by taking it out of the IM application. It can be integrated into contact manager applications, such as Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook, that could list IM contacts by their real names instead of their IM handles. Putting AIM in other applications and on Web sites would also allow for more AIM contacts than the maximum-size AIM Buddy List, Smith said. An AIM Buddy List can include as many as 200 names, according to Corre at AOL. PresenceWorks currently offers a beta version of its Outlook plug-in at its Web site,

Smith at PresenceWorks acknowledged security concerns about tying AIM into Outlook, which several e-mail worms have used to forward themselves to all users on a contact list.

“We’ve done a great deal of work making sure the instant-messaging presence we propagate doesn’t create any new vulnerabilities,” and have worked hard to design the add-on so worms can’t take advantage of it, he said.

No date has been set for the release of a commercial version of the plug-in for Outlook, Smith said.