America Online released a free, Internet-based e-mail service today - the first time the company has gone outside the "garden wall" of their fee-based subscription model for substantial services.
Competing with free emails services like Google's Gmail (2.3 gigabytes of storage), Yahoo (1 gigabyte for free), and Microsoft Corp.'s Hotmail (250 megabytes), AOL's new email service will provide 2 gigabytes of free storage and protection against viruses and spam.
"AIM Mail," as the new service is called, is available to any AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) user and is being delivered via the new v. 5.9 of AOL's AIM client. Users of AIM will be able to use their existing screen name for their e-mail address.
Other improvements to the current AIM service include one-click access to AIM Mail, an expanded buddy list feature that can now accommodate up to 400 buddies and store more contact information for each one, as well as twice as much writing space for away messages.
AIM users who activate their AIM Mail account can register to become eligible to win daily prizes, including Starbucks gift cards, T-Mobile Sidekicks, Apple iPod Shuffles and Sony PlayStation Portables. One grand prize winner will drive away in a 2005 MINI Copper S.
AOL also announced its 80 million paying customers will have access to unlimited storage space for emails, attachments and folders later this summer; and in another change, up to seven screen names on a single dial-up account can sign on simultaneously from multiple locations, a feature previously only available to broadband customers.
This is what competition will do, though I am certain AOL would rather roll back the clock about six or seven years to when they ruled the online universe.