Review: AOL's AIM Pro still in the amateur league

More security, webconferencing -- but only if you're a Windows user

Last week, AOL LLC released a new business-oriented instant messaging client called AIM Pro. The client offers some interesting features, but it's only available for the Windows operating system and doesn't come close to delivering what the private IM networks and clients of Microsoft Corp. and IBM's Lotus have to offer.

Available as a free download, AIM Pro offers encrypted communications -- as long as you're talking to another AIM Pro user and not with someone from the general instant messaging population who is running another client. But this is something that the private networks have had since Day One. AIM Pro also offers voice chats and the ability for users to send files to one another. It communicates with all of the various AOL IM network users, including ICQ and AIM, and with other clients that run over them, such as Trillian, iChat and Adium -- to name a few.

It also includes support for desktop screen sharing and webconferencing. Both aspects of this are provided through WebEx, which works only on Windows and with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

The interface for AIM Pro is different from that of the current AIM client software: Pro has tabs called IM, Voice, Videos, Share (for desktop sharing) and Files. Regular AIM has tabs called Text, Talk, Video, Pictures and Files. The buddy list windows of the regular AIM client that had tabs for Buddies and Addresses have been replaced with tabs called Contacts and Calendar. This latter feature is for sharing events with Outlook's calendar, but you need to install Service Pack 4 to take advantage of it.

Lotus SameTime and Jabber offer both Mac and Linux clients with most of the functionality of AIM Pro -- if not more. This is a big deal because in the world of IM you don't know who you're going to be communicating with, and given instant messaging's popularity, chances are you will IM someone who isn't on Windows and can't take advantage of all of its features.

The AIM Pro client has a couple of things going for it. First of all is it's price -- like the other AIM clients, it's free. The one caveat is that users of the webconferencing feature will need to pay WebEx for access to meetings, while one-to-one desktop sharing is gratis.

When you first install AIM Pro, it asks if you want to scoop up the buddies from another public IM identity. You can take all or some of these online friends with you as you wish. The new AIM Pro screen name is created using your existing e-mail address, and the software e-mails you a verification code to make sure that it is indeed you who initiates this action. This is a good thing for business users who want some kind of accountability with their correspondents, although again, it isn't anywhere near the kind of federated identity that is offered by Lotus and Microsoft -- and, to some extent, Jabber.

This new e-mail-like screen name doesn't work with the AIM Express Web-based client yet. That's because AIM Express doesn't like @ signs in the middle of screen names. This seems like a glaring omission on AOL's part.

AIM Pro will archive messages for a default 14 days. It will also catch IMs from unknown sources; you can easily deflect these messages or add the senders to your buddy, er, contact list.

AIM Pro isn't AOL's first attempt to capture the keyboards of business IM users. It had the AIM Enterprise Gateway, now discontinued, that was a proxy/firewall/monitoring appliance that corporations could use to control IM access. And while it's nice to see AOL thinking about how corporations are going to use IM, in the end, most companies would be better off considering one of the more fully featured offerings from Microsoft or Lotus if they are concerned about their IM communications and can afford the licenses necessary to support their users.

David Strom is a writer, editor, public speaker, blogging coach and consultant. He is a former editor in chief of Network Computing and Tom's Hardware and has his own blog at http://strominator.com. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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