AIM 6.5: The '90s aren't dead...yet

One of the most popular chat programs of the previous decade struggles to remain relevant. Seth Rosenblatt takes a look at the latest upgrade to AOL Instant Messenger.

AOL has upgraded its classic messenger AIM to version 6.5, building on the makeover the program got last year when it rose up from its deathbed to version 6 with a host of long-overdue improvements. Unless you're a die-hard AIM fan, though, these latest changes might not be readily apparent.

They might not be worth it, either.

The most notable changes are the inclusion of two built-in plug-ins that you can opt out of when you run the installation file. First off is a fully functional Death Star, I mean, control panel for the AOL Tunes music streaming service. This includes the XM Radio streams, introduced in version 6 and no surprise, given the relationship between the two companies. You can control music from your own music folder, as well as stream any DRM-free songs in your buddies' music folders.

AIM\'s AOL Tunes plug-in gives you full control over the streaming music service and is expandable beyond the confines of the bottom of the Buddy list. It doesn\'t seem to work on Windows Vista, though. (Credit: CNET Networks Inc.)

That's a pretty neat trick, but it won't work if you're running Windows Vista. For whatever reason, both plug-ins worked great in Windows XP and then coughed, sputtered, and screamed bloody murder any time I tried to get them to run on Vista. It didn't matter whether I tried them in conjunction with Firefox, Internet Explorer or Opera: Like a petulant 2-year-old, they had dropped their weight and they weren't moving.

The QQ plug-in is similar, letting you play with your friends on your Buddy list in the casual MMORPGs that QQ is known for. Other new features include expanded mobile messaging, an easier way to switch skins, some new Status message options, and a new AIM Short Code feature.

Except that the Short Code, which is supposed to allow users to access their Buddy list, change their status message, send messages, and more via SMS sent from their cell phones, doesn't work yet. It's supposed to roll out this week, but given some of the other problems that AIM has, I'm not holding my breath.

On the plus side, the TXT Message Mode was far more stable, functioning well regardless of OS. This lets you toggle quickly between sending messages to friends' mobiles or to their PCs. There's also a Buddy Note feature that lets you make private notes on members of your Buddy list, which is excellent for noting birthdays, or perhaps even maintaining a nice-or-naughty list, just in time for the upcoming holidays.

The skin picker built into the Buddy list makes jumping from one color scheme to the next fast and smooth. (Credit: CNET Networks Inc.)

The Status message upgrade makes it more like Twitter, a logical extension of the old functionality, where now you can leave messages for your buddies regardless of whether or not you're online. I'm not sure that leaving a status message that reads, "in the BAHAMAS!!!111!!" will endear you to your friends, especially if you don't change it for the two weeks you're out of town and away from your computer, but that's your decision.

The other features--Plaxo address book, telephony, and a free local "dummy" number with free voice mail--are nice touches, but nothing that blasts AIM ahead of the pack. The Buddy window has been largely unchanged, managing links to other services, extra features, and, of course, ads.

Whether these services can entice new users as well as those who have drifted to multichatware supporting applications remains to be seen. Personally, I'm sticking with Pidgin.

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