AOL is to introduce a free web mail service as part of a test, or beta, upgrade of its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service.

The second beta release of AIM 5.9, expected to be available on this week, will offer every user a web mail account featuring 2GB of storage, spam filters, antivirus protection and drag-and-drop functionality to organize messages into folders.

As would be expected, the new web mail service will be tightly integrated with AIM. An icon will indicate if an email sender or other recipients are logged into the AIM service. Users will also be able to launch the web mail service from within the AIM client and from the AIM welcome screen. The Web mail service's address book also will feature icons that indicate if those listed are logged into AIM.

Users' email address will consist of their AIM handle and the suffix "".

Other features include search functionality for finding stored messages and the ability to cancel a message after it has been sent, as long as it hasn't been read and was sent to a recipient with an or email address. The service will also feature a spell checker and rich text HTML formatting, which allows users to change font types, sizes and colours.

Free web mail services have been around for a long time, so AOL may in some ways be considered a late entrant to the game. However, considering the company's marketing clout and the popularity of its AIM service, it stands a good chance of making its presence felt quickly, says Joe Laszlo, a Jupiter Research analyst. It's clear users are willing to give alternative web mail services a try, and the set of features AOL is offering covers pretty much everything users are accustomed to, he says.

"The open question is how many people will convert to this as their primary web mail account," Laszlo says.

AOL plans to make the latest beta of AIM 5.9 available for download at some point this week. In June, users will be able to sign up for the service from the company's public web portal at