Ever since the early 1990s, when America Online (AOL) began pushing its Internet services, under that name, it has been the target of varied criticism from many quarters. For instance, administrators of online forums and email services bemoaned the oftentimes ridiculous problems caused by computer newbies unleashed on the Internet by AOL. Environmentalists were infuriated by the unrelenting stream of largely unwanted AOL starter CDs — more than 660 million!
But even AOL's harshest critics would have to agree that the company has no equal when it comes to offering Internet content that is extremely easy for even the most inexperienced computer user. In fact, it is quite likely that AOL has introduced more Americans to the Internet than any other Internet service provider (ISP).
This ease of use is reflected in AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), a free service that allows users to communicate with one another in real time, via text messages. Even though AIM is not the only instant messaging (IM) service available, it has maintained a leadership position for many years, and shows no signs of declining in popularity — at least, within the IM universe.
But the Internet, like time, waits for no man — nor for any company. Social networking on the Internet is undergoing a revolutionary and fast-paced transformation, as a result of people sharing their digital pictures, videos, commentary (in the form of blogs), favorite links, and even opinions of all of the above (in the form of votes and evaluations). AOL no doubt realized that it could be quickly left behind if it continued to rely solely upon IM.
AOL decided to leverage its sizable share of the IM marketplace, and in May 2006 began to expand AIM to allow members to share photos, add music widgets to their personal sites, and to create their own blogs. It may never enjoy the market share equal to that of MySpace, but so far the AOL contender appears to have every intention of challenging the established social networks.
Ready, AIM, Go!
Anyone interested in learning the details of what AIM has to offer, and perhaps trying it for themselves, should first start at the service's main website. There they will be able to sign up for the service and also download the three current versions of the AIM application software.
AIM version 6.1 is the latest, and it supports Windows Vista. It offers several new capabilities; you can add your friends' images and cell phone numbers to your Buddy List; customize its colors; do group instant messages; save conversations; share pictures; and talk with others over AIM's telephony service, Phoneline.
AIM version 5.9 is still available for those who have no interest in those new features. The third variation, AIM Pro, is designed for business users. It runs on Vista, and integrates with Microsoft Outlook's calendar, among other tools commonly found in the office environment.
All three versions of AIM run on desktop computers and laptops, with some support for PDAs. Once the chosen version of AIM has been downloaded and installed on your computing device(s), you can sign up and choose a screen name. As is true with domain names, most of the best ones have already been taken, and thus you will have to put some thought into coming up with a clever one that isn't too long.
If and when you have AIM version 6.1 running, you may decide to expand its capabilities by downloading and installing some of the available plugins. AIM Location allows you to see where your buddies are hanging out, and determine which ones are closest to you at any time, using the optional Skyhook Wireless capabilities. AIM Fight allows you to compete against others on the basis of the all-important currency among teenagers — popularity. An individual's score is based upon how many people have buddy-listed him or her.
The AIM video plugin makes it possible for you to modify various settings within your AIM installation, such as input/output devices. The Music Link plugin will display to you the song you are currently listening to in Winamp or iTunes, and even allow others to see the same.
Anyone who has signed up for the Phoneline Unlimited plan can use the Click To Call plugin, which automatically hyperlinks the phone numbers of any incoming calls, for one-click dialing. With the Colors plugin, your outgoing messages can be randomly colored, perhaps keeping parents and other authority figures off balance.
The Buddy Icon Maker is self-explanatory, as is the Buddy List Options plugin. The Default Away plugin indicates that you are away whenever you lock your computer.
True AIM Online
Like any decent social networking service, AIM does not require the use of desktop software in order to connect with others in your network. AIM Express makes it possible to send instant messages directly from any of the supported Web browsers. Their current list includes Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Netscape, but not Opera.
AIM Express has a feature called Buddy Chats, which is essentially group instant messaging — in other words, conference calling, but with text messages. It also has a feature that allows you to track your buddies by seeing what they are doing online, one moment to the next. That, in conjunction with the aforesaid method of monitoring what songs your buddies are listening to, can make one wonder as to what is left of privacy.
For those people who would prefer communicating using not-so-instant messaging, AOL offers free Web-based email. Unlike their much-derided email service of the past, this new one provides unlimited free online storage, thereby eclipsing even Gmail's maximum storage of less than three gigabytes.
An additional service, called "AOL My eAddress", invites you to choose your own domain name. The example that they provide is "Tex@MyChiliDogsRule.com". Their link for learning more is hosted on the free.aol.com server, which was dead when I tested it. Perhaps the "America Off-Line" jokes should not be discarded just yet.
One part of the AIM social network that is currently functional, is AIM Pages, where members can post their pictures, comments, and links to buddies. Also, visitors can leave their own comments.
So if you would like to try AOL's version of social networking, you can do so — no starter CDs required.