Updated 6/23/08 at 5:40 pm PST to correct details about the texting feature.
AIM for Windows Mobile

After the sophistication of desktop chatting, mobile instant messaging services often tend to look like rough, rickety wire frames. Not so for AOL's first house-made application for mobile phones, a rich AIM client for Windows Mobile phones versions 5 and 6.

Released earlier this month, the IM application is in beta stages and there are plenty of known issues, including the one that number-locks the keypad on T-Mobile Dash phones and made for a dead-end first attempt. Past that obstacle, AIM for Windows Mobile phones offers a graphics-rich chat space with a few extras beyond basic messaging.

There's a status bar, AIM bots for guided chatting, and some light account management. There's also a visual solution to multiple conversations that earns a big, juicy point for creativity. Tabbed conversations and blinking messages are the norm for mobile IM, but AOL has opted to account for each open conversation by a buddy icon lined up along the left edge of the screen. During chats, each buddy icon is overlain with the number of awaiting messages, plus or minus an optional auditory accompaniment.

Dialog to view, block, or report messages from unknown users.
View, block, or tattetale on unsolicited messages. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The Windows Mobile application will also let users take advantage of text mode to send an SMS instead of an IM. This option was ghosted out during my testing, but I'm assured that by the end of the beta period, the feature will replicate the desktop experience.

Since IM wouldn't be IM without emoticons, AOL has taken care to include those, too. Emoticons are easy to add with a pop-up selector next to the text input field, but are too emo for my taste with their heavily bolded expressions. Tiny sizes don't help.

In fact, readability has been sacrificed in AIM for Windows Mobile in exchange for achieving a familiar desktop feel. Those with strong eyesight and no aversion to squinting shouldn't overly mind. Likewise, chatterboxes who prefer a greater graphical environment should weather the few extra nanoseconds it takes to switch between conversations.

AIM for Windows Mobile is a notable effort that serves AIM loyalists well, though with basic functionality. Let's hope future versions integrate with the phone camera and file system as well as with SMS.

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.