AOL is hoping to cash in on the social networking craze that the instant-messaging system it invented in 1989 helped make possible.
The 41 million users of its AIM network will now be able to get a free local phone line and voicemail for incoming calls through the AIM Phoneline service starting May 16. There is a fee of $14.95 per month for people who want to get unlimited local, long-distance and international calling through AIM Phoneline Unlimited.
AOL also is taking a page from popular Web sites including
MySpace by offering features including personalized Web pages. The AIM Pages feature, which AOL will start testing next week, will also make it easier for people to share content like photographs.
"AIM Pages in my opinion is a brilliant," says Michael Arrington, editor of the blog
TechCrunch. "MySpace is great, but not invincible."
Arrington is less sure about the new phone service, arguing that people who are online are more apt to communicate through instant messages than over the telephone. "I don't see people using it much because there doesn't appear to be a way to forward calls to another phone, so you have to be online and take the call from your computer," he says.
AOL will eventually make that service available, says Anne Bentley, a company spokeswoman.
"In the Unlimited service we will forward a text message to your cell phone when you receive a call," she says. "While that's not there at launch for the free service, we're working on getting that out as soon as possible. Additionally call forwarding features -- like forwarding all incoming calls to office or cell -- are also on the product roadmap."
Improving AOL's performance is a top priority for New York-based Time Warner. During the first quarter, improvements in advertising sales weren't able to compensate for the continued defection of dial-up Internet subscribers to faster service. The company is betting that it can boost its user base by adding exclusive video content and a network of online journals.
Time Warner is betting that its partnership with
will help turn around AOL. The company sold the search engine giant a 5% stake in AOL for $1 billion last year.
Shares of Time Warner, whose holdings include
, fell 4 cents to $17.09.