America Online is poised to unveil the next version of its client software, and which includes an enhancement to its built-in instant messaging that offers streaming videoconferencing.
The Dulles, Va.-based Internet giant, a unit of New York media conglomerate Time Warner
, plans to launch the next version of its flagship client software, codenamed Tahiti, early into 2004. With that release, the AOL software should include capabilities enabling AOL subscribers to initiate streaming video sessions from within an IM conversation.
“We’re currently testing it within the beta of the AOL service,” said AOL spokesman Derick Mains. “We expect to have it as a live service at some point early next year.”
The service, dubbed Live Video IM, is only available to users of Windows XP with the Microsoft RTC 1.2 Libraries. When subscribers click on a video icon during a chat, a small video window appears alongside the text IM conversation. Users can view the output of their camera in one tab, view their Buddy in another, and view them both simultaneously using a picture-in-picture feature. Video is delivered relatively crisply, although it naturally becomes choppy when viewed by dialup users.
Users of the free, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) IM client should receive the service at about the same time as do their peers on the flagship AOL service, Mains said. A beta version of AIM including Live Video IM is expected to be released before the end of the year, and will be released officially “early next year,” he said.
Until August, America Online had not been allowed to offer such a feature, having been prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission from developing advanced, broadband-based IM services — including videoconferencing. That month, however, the FCC lifted its two-year-old restriction on AOL’s development of advanced high-speed IM services, clearing the way for the company to launch services like Live Video IM across its broadband network.
Accordingly, Live Video IM is similar to those offered by rivals like Yahoo!
, which have grown in scale and prominence while AOL had been lobbying for a removal of the FCC restriction.
In May, Microsoft inked a deal with Webcam manufacturer Logitech
to provide a co-branded interface add-on to MSN Messenger and more subtly integrated video in MSN Messenger 6. A year earlier, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! launched its “Super Webcam” feature, a broadband-capable, higher-quality implementation of the real-time streaming video IM found in the company’s Yahoo! Instant Messenger since mid-2001.
For AOL, the launch of Live Video IM not only aims to make its public IM network comparable with those of competitors, it also serves as the culmination of earlier efforts by the company to link multimedia and its extremely popular IM network.
While AOL had been petitioning for lifting of the FCC restriction, it began development of a less-flashy, non-streamed video IM feature that offers “push-to-talk”-like functionality — users record clips of themselves via a Web cam, and then send that clip to the Buddy with whom they’re chatting. Meanwhile, recipients have to click to open each individual clip they receive. That feature, now available in AOL 9.0 Optimized, has not made its way into AIM.
AOL has also pursued multimedia initiatives with partners, such as Apple Computer
, in the form of Apple iChat AV. iChat AV enables Mac owners to communicate using AIM-based IM, while also affording them the opportunity to launch Session Initiation Protocol-based audio- and videoconferencing.
Mains declined to comment on whether AOL Live Video IM would eventually interoperate with the videoconferencing service currently offered to Apple iChat AV users. At present, the system is incompatible with Live Video IM.
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.