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TANGENT Instant-messaging technology catches up with users' demands

By Mike Wendland

Knight Ridder Newspapers

DETROIT -- After years of being deluged with ever-increasing loads of spam, Internet users are starting to turn to instant-messaging applications instead of e-mail.

About 53 million Americans now use instant messaging regularly, and about a quarter of them now tell the surveyors from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that they use IM more than e-mail.

That's a significant new trend that Pew says it has identified. And it's no doubt one of the factors behind a major upgrade to the gorilla of Internet IM programs -- America Online's AIM. AIM 5.9, as it's officially known, can be downloaded free at www.aim.com.

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AIM's update is aimed strictly at consumers, bundling in new enhancements that let instant messaging do something that used to be relegated largely to e-mail: picture sharing. AIM users can now send digital photos right from the IM application.

True, you could always attach a picture or file and send it as an IM. But with AIM 5.9, digital picture features are now much more seamlessly a part of the IM experience. The picture you send opens right in your friend's IM window, instead of arriving as a file that has to be downloaded to the hard drive and then opened.

This is a significant advance. With e-mail, attached photos often get blocked by spam filters or anti-virus programs because attachments are how viruses and worms are spread. That doesn't happen when photos get sent by IM, because they're coming from an approved buddy and the recipient is already in live contact with them.

It couldn't be easier to use the feature. You spot one of your buddies online. Click on his or her name to make a connection. Then click the photo-sharing icon that is now on the AIM application, select your photo and hit send.

Edmund Fish, AOL's vice president and general manager of desktop messaging, said a survey of AOL customers earlier this year showed photo-sharing to be a key feature users wanted for messaging.

"IM users are now interested in new, shared experiences that help them do more with the friends, family members and colleagues on their buddy lists," Fish said.

But AOL is interested in making some money from the popularity of IM. While the upgrade and photo-sharing features are free, some new AIM offerings will cost money.

Taking a cue from cell phone companies, which have discovered new revenue streams by selling mobile phone users games and ring tones, AOL is offering a wide selection of what it calls SuperBuddy icons and AIM Expressions.

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The icons are animated drawings or pictures of people, animals, expressions and the like that users can put next to their screen names on their buddy lists. There are, for example, George W. Bush and John Kerry icons available so AIM users can show their political leanings.

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