is moving quietly into video messaging by implementing a "push-to-talk"-like service -- a move that circumvents controversial government limitations on the company's multimedia IM capabilities.
Currently in beta testing, the new AOL feature will enable the service's subscribers to activate an additional pane on their IM client. Within that pane, users can record video clips of themselves via a Web cam, and then send that clip to the buddy with whom they're chatting. Users will have to click to open each new clip they receive.
As a result, it's not real-time communications, but it's close -- and many users will find that it feels like push-to-talk mobile communications, with which U.S. consumers are already familiar, due to its success for wireless carrier Nexteland planned deployments by rival operators.
The service's "record-and-forward" feature also means that it skirts the restrictions on broadband-based, video IM levied on the company by the Federal Communications Commission in 2001 as a condition of the AOL-Time Warner merger. The new feature is based on the IM client's peer-to-peer file-sharing capabilities, which enable direct transmission of individual clips -- instead of keeping a streaming data connection open, which is needed for real-time communications.
According to the FCC's restrictions, AOL cannot deploy advanced, high-speed services that hinge on IM -- like real-time video chatting -- while its free, proprietary public IM network is dominant in the marketplace. Since then, AOL's major rivals in the public IM circuit, Yahoo!and Microsoft'sMSN, have launched their own streaming, real-time video IM add-ons to their free instant messaging clients.
For AOL, the move appears a stopgap measure, coming as it does as the company is aiming to get those restrictions lifted. Last week, the New York-based media conglomerate filed a petition asking the Commission to reconsider the condition in light of AOL's slipping market share in the IM sector. In the petition, AOL argued that the free, public IM sector is healthy and competitive, and that it doesn't have an opportunity to use its leading position in the market as a way to unfairly catapult itself to dominance in an area built on that position -- like video messaging. (AOL also had the option of pursuing server-to-server interoperability to get the restriction lifted, but has evidently abandoned such a strategy after early tests.)
So far, America Online is mum about when the feature might be made "official," and whether it will find its way from the AOL service's built-in IM to more popular AOL Instant Messenger.
"We have not determined a rollout schedule for this 'record-and-forward' video feature, and any client implementation will be based upon user-generated feedback we receive from Beta testers," said AOL spokesman Derick Mains.
In any case, the feature is the latest effort by public IM providers to enhance multimedia functionality in their clients. Last month, Microsoft inked a deal with Webcam manufacturer Logitechto provide a co-branded interface add-on to MSN Messenger -- essentially co-opting and building on Fremont, Calif.-based Logitech's IM Video Companion software, which operates as a third-party add-on to any of the major public IM clients.
In August 2002, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! launched its "Super Webcam" feature, a beefed-up, high-speed, higher-quality implementation of the real-time streaming video IM found in the company's Yahoo! Instant Messenger since mid-2001.
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.