AOL has today launched a free IM (instant messaging) application for business users.

AIM Pro Professional Edition integrates with Microsoft Outlook corporate directories and calendars, encrypts messages and scans them for viruses, and offers quick access to business conferencing services from WebEx, the company said.

Around 14 million people already use AIM as a daily business tool, AOL said. With AIM Pro PE (Professional Edition) the company hopes they will see its software as a tool not just for secure IM, but also for secure filesharing or for hosting online meetings with voice, video and collaborative working tools.

Although there are already enterprise IM tools on the market, such as IBM's Lotus Sametime, most business IM users make do with free tools intended for consumers, AOL said.

AOL faces renewed competition in the enterprise services market. Messaging rival Microsoft announced plans yesterday to link up with Nortel to integrate IM with traditional telecommunications and conferencing services.

AIM Pro PE is available as a free download. It replaces the basic AIM application, and will automatically import contact lists and account information from previous versions, the company said.

Alongside the regular IM functionality, AIM Pro PE adds access to business conferencing services provided by WebEx, allowing users to join voice or video conferences from within the AIM interface. In order to create conferences and collaborative workspaces, though, AIM Pro users need to set up an account with WebEx, which charges from $0.33 (about £0.18) per person per minute for the conference, according to that company's website. Basic IM communications remain free, AOL said.