AIM talks back

Why type when you can talk?

America Online last Friday released a beta version of AOL Instant Messenger 3.5, also called AIM Talk. Armed with a microphone and headset, you can talk to your buddy just as you would chat on the phone, instead of furiously pounding away on a keyboard. Of course, the sound quality isn't quite as crystal clear as Ma Bell's, but as one spokesperson notes, it's only a trial version.

"This is just a beta version -- we are testing how it performs under all sorts of circumstances," says Anne Bentley, an AOL spokesperson.

When using AIM Talk, both correspondents see a Talk dialogue box on their screens. The box has volume sliders that let you raise or lower the sound of your voice or that of your chat buddy. We found that we needed to keep the volume as high as possible in order to hear each other.

The Talk dialogue box comes with mute, pause and disconnect buttons. The mute function, however, works only with Windows NT. All other features of the beta edition work under Windows 95/98.

AIM 3.5 lets you send images to other AIM users as well. Sending an image can only happen through a direct connection with your AIM buddy, which requires mutual consent. AIM 3.5 sends an automatic warning that the program cannot control the image content, and that the transmission could be objectionable.

To send an image, you simply open the Instant Messaging text box and attach an image file, just as if you were attaching a document to an e-mail message. The image arrives for your chat buddy as an image, not as a file that they have to open.

AIM 3.0, the current release, debuted in late August and includes new features such as a custom news and stock ticker, more secure registration, tighter integration with AOL chat rooms, and the ability to accept screen names up to 16 characters long.

It's possible AIM Talk will never be released as an AOL product, Bentley says.

"Unless we are happy with the way the product performs [in the beta tests] it might not see the light of day," says Bentley, noting the testing process can last anywhere from weeks to months. "This is why we do beta tests."

AOL is encouraging users to submit suggestions and comments, so the company can fine-tune this beta version. You can access a bug report form from the same Web page where you can download AIM Talk.

With heavyweights from Microsoft to Yahoo all aboard the instant messaging gravy train, it was probably only a matter of time before AOL tried to set its product apart. Avid fans of instant messaging will no doubt see chat integration as a small step for AIM and a giant leap for anytime, anywhere communication.

AIM Talk is now available in beta editions for Windows 95/98 and NT only. If beta test results are positive, AOL plans to release an official version by year's end.

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