AOL launches program for AIM bots

America Online Inc. (AOL) is launching a program Monday to promote and facilitate the creation of what it calls AIM Robots for its AIM instant messaging system.

AIM Robots are sponsored and operated by AOL and other vendors and appear as buddy icons in the buddy lists of AIM users who install them.

For example, users can send an instant message to the AOLYellowpages AIM Robot with the name of a local business or with simply a keyword and the robot replies with related directory listings. The Wall Street Journal robot lets users set up news alerts to be delivered via AIM, as well as request stock prices. A robot sponsored by the ABC quiz show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” polls users via AIM when a show contestant requests help with a particular question.

AIM Robots have existed since 2002, but AOL is now wrapping a formal program around this feature, said Brian Curry, senior director of AOL’s AIM Network Services. “We never had a well-defined program. Now we have a program with partners who help people build these bots,” he said.

The decision to give AIM Robots a boost is a result of the increasing popularity of instant messaging in general and of the existing AIM Robots, particularly the “Who wants to be a millionaire?” one, which has been added to the buddy lists of about 75,000 AIM users, Curry said. “It’s a great window for marketers to interact with potential customers and disseminate information,” he said.

It’s up to each user to add the robots he’s interested in, and he can remove them whenever he wants, Curry said. Robot operators agree not to distribute users’ screen names and pledge to only use the robots for their stated purpose, so that AIM users don’t face the type of spam nuisance affecting e-mail, Curry said. “That’s a point of great sensitivity for us,” he said, adding that AOL monitors closely the use of robots to ensure that the experience remains a positive one for users.

The AIM Bot Program features third-party partners such as IMLogic Inc., FaceTime Communications Inc., Akonix Systems Inc. and Macromedia Inc. that have been certified by AOL to create AIM Robots and deploy them on the AIM network by reselling access to the AIM network. A company interested in promoting its brand or its products via an AIM Robot can contact AOL or these certified partners.

A company may launch an AIM Robot to reach consumers (business-to-consumer) or to interact with corporate clients, partners or its own employees (business-to-business.)

This AOL initiative is significant because it’s going to make it easier for companies to launch AIM robots, particularly brick-and-mortar companies that until now haven’t considered an instant-messaging robot a viable tool to reach out to customers and partners, said Michael Osterman, president and founder of market research firm Osterman Research Inc.

“The fact that AOL has the market leadership in the IM space is going to give them an advantage with companies that are looking to get into this,” Osterman said. “There are a lot of companies that don’t do anything in this space right now and if they decide to test the waters and invest in one (robot) technology or one venue for this, at least as a trial, AIM is the way to go, simply because it has the biggest reach.”

Instant-messaging robots appeal to end-users because they offer the ability to communicate in real time and obtain information in a way that is absent from most Web sites, except those that have a chat feature, Osterman said. “That’s the direction IM is going. You’ll continue to see the text chat that goes on now, but you’re going to see a lot more integration with back-end applications to basically extract the information you want,” he added.

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