Update 2:50 p.m. This article has been updated with user experience information on AIM integration into Gmail.
Gmail and Google Talk users can now chat with their AOL Instant Messenger buddies through the Gmail interface, Google announced today. Rolling out to all English-based users by the end of the day, the new feature will let you seamlessly jump from chatting with a Google contact to an AIM buddy without having to use two separate chat clients.
The AIM integration feels native to Gmail. The AIM log-in panel is behind the "Set status here" upside-down triangle under the Contacts list. Click there, and if the feature rollout has hit your account, you'll see a "Sign into AIM" option on the drop-down menu with AIM's yellow running man icon next to it.
A new window opens when you choose to sign in, so be sure that you don't have a pop-up blocker enabled for Gmail.com. Enter in your AIM username and password, or hit the link at the bottom of the window to create a new AOL account, and you're good to go. AOL buddies will appear in the Contacts list, mixed in with Google Chat contacts. The running man icon for AIM contacts appears on the right side of the chat list.
Click on the "Set status here" triangle again, and you'll notice the AIM login option has changed to a logout. Once you've logged out, your AIM contacts disappear, although the next time you log in you won't need to re-enter your password. To use a different AIM account, you need to go to the Chat tab under Settings.
This integration comes right on the heels of Google Chat rolling out group chats and more developed smileys last week. Individual chat and the ever-important smileys are there, but any other ancillary AIM features you might be interested in require the full AIM client.
Google was cagey about whether Gmail will feature other chat protocols such as ICQ in the future. Jason Freidenfelds, a spokesman for Google, said only that he couldn't comment on whether they were looking at including other chat programs.
Another new feature that Google added last night was colored tabs for labels. This feature, previously only available through plug-ins like Better Gmail, lets users assign colors to labels to make it easier to keep track of them. From the Labels panel, click on the square next to the label and a drop-down menu of colors will appear. Select a color and your e-mail list will refresh, with the label name on e-mails now in vibrant life-affirming hues.
Besides making it easier to see labeled e-mails, when you click on an e-mail that's been labeled you can now search for all e-mails with that label or remove the label from the e-mail directly from buttons next to the e-mail's subject line.
While colored labels aren't a killer feature, they're small touches that make the interface that much easier to use. Combined with the AIM integration and other recent changes, it's hard to understate the usefulness to users of the recently rewritten Gmail source code.