Free 'Expressions' No More

  |  May 12, 2003   |  Comments

AOL is charging for its AIM skins.

While AOL Time Warner continues to suffer from a harsh advertising market, the New York-based media conglomerate is seeking new ways to make money from its instant messaging service.

The company in recent weeks started charging a small fee for the Expressions for AOL Instant Messenger users. Expressions -- downloadable skins or themes that add graphics and animation to users' Buddy List and IM windows -- are free to users of the company's America Online service and its built-in IM client, although users of the more popular free AIM client must shell out $1.95 per month for Expressions, or $9.95 annually.

That subscription buys a user unlimited access to AOL Expressions, and users can change themes at will. The service offers more than 65 themes at present, from categories including animals, time periods and sports.

The move is unusual in that it's the first effort by the major IM providers to charge for any portion of their instant messaging services.

AIM Expressions first came into being a year ago, when the company deployed version 5.0 of its IM client. In the months following the feature's launch, AOL used Expressions began promote advertisers.

However, most advertisers to date have consisted of corporate siblings, like Warner Bros. Studios, and currently, the service offers no advertiser-branded Expressions.

While it offers fewer skins, Yahoo , on the other hand, appears to have been more successful in wooing advertisers since it began offering themes in late 2001. Dubbed IMVironments, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based portal's IM skins have regularly featured advertisers, particularly entertainment clients, since their debut. Recent clients include the films "X2" and "Holes," and classic rockers The Eagles.

Microsoft , the third major player in the IM space, plans to offer user-customizable skins in the upcoming version of its MSN Messenger client, slated for release in coming months.

While it's yet to introduce fees in connection with its consumer IM service, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant does use the service to promote related offerings -- it requires users to be paying members of its MSN service to share Web browsers, a feature that is promoted in its MSN Messenger client menu.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of


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