AOL has upgraded its popular AIM instant-messaging service with new features like the ability to send messages to offline users and to store IM sessions in a PC.In AIM 6.0, AOL also doubled the number of contacts a user can have in his or her\u00a0"buddy" list to 1,000 people, AOL plans to announce on Wednesday.AOL is involved in a scalding-hot competition in the consumer IM market with rivals Microsoft and Yahoo, which recently established a basic level of interoperability between their IM networks. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo operate the three most popular consumer IM networks, but AIM users can\u2019t communicate with Microsoft and Yahoo users because each network operates with proprietary communication protocols. Microsoft\u2019s Windows Live Messenger leads with 29 percent of users worldwide, followed by AIM with 27 percent and Yahoo Messenger with 21 percent, according to The Radicati Group.AOL is working with Google to link AIM with the Google Talk IM service. AIM already has interoperability with other IM platforms, such as Apple Computer\u2019s iChat, Reuters Group PLC\u2019s system and AOL\u2019s own ICQ, a sister IM network to AIM.As one of the most popular online communication tools, instant messaging has evolved from offering users only the ability to exchange text messages in real-time to providing an ever-expanding suite of services, like Internet telephony, video chats, games, and integration with e-mail systems and other online services. Because IM services are so popular, they are also attractive vehicles for delivering online advertising.AOL will actively encourage all of its AIM users to upgrade to 6.0, since two-thirds of them are on AIM 5.9 and the rest on a more advanced version called Triton, launched last year, said Ann Santorios, AIM\u2019s director of product management. AIM has about 70 million active users worldwide, 42 million of them in the United States, she said.AIM 6.0 has been built using Triton\u2019s code base and software architecture, and will thus retain Triton\u2019s communication features, but with a redesigned user interface, she said. "This is Triton with a face-lift," she said.The new offline messaging feature lets users send messages to people on their "buddy" list who aren\u2019t logged on at the time. They will receive the messages as soon as they sign on to AIM. Meanwhile, with the conversation logging option, users will be able to save text chats as HTML files on their computers. Other enhancements in 6.0 include:\n\na new "dashboard" intended to make it easier for users to access existing mobile features, like setting up mobile alerts and IM forwarding\n\ndeeper integration with the new AIM Pages blogging and social networking service, including one-click access from the AIM interface\n\na redesigned AIM Today welcome webpage, expected to launch next week, with access to users\u2019 Web mail accounts from AOL, Google\u2019s Gmail and Yahoo\u2019s Mail Plus\n\na new notification service that sends RSS alerts whenever an AIM user updates with new content his or her\u00a0accounts on services like Yahoo\u2019s Flickr and del.icio.us, Six Apart\u2019s LiveJournal, Google\u2019s YouTube and Blogger, and News Corp.\u2019s MySpace.com\n\nsingle sign-on to a variety of AIM-related services, like the AIM Mail Web mail serviceWhile not revolutionary, AIM 6.0 is a strong update, with enhancements that might be compelling enough to motivate users to upgrade, said analyst Michael Osterman of Osterman Research. Sending offline messages and storing IM sessions seem like useful features, he said.The upgrade may be particularly interesting for AIM 5.9 users, who can get the best Triton features and a new set of enhancements, Osterman said. Triton\u2019s relatively low adoption is due to several reasons, including misgivings about its user interface and users\u2019 perception that Triton lacks "must-have" new features, Osterman said. AIM 6.0, which requires Windows XP or Windows 2000, can be downloaded for free here.-Juan Carlos Perez, IDG News Service (Miami Bureau)Related Link:\n\nAOL Acquires RelegenceCheck out our CIO News Alerts and Tech Informer pages for more updated news coverage.