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AOL isn’t killing AIM… just most of its dev team

sad aim guyInternet veteran AOL has had its fair share of documented struggles in recent years. The mobile revolution and appification of the Internet hasn’t been kind to the Web 1.0 company, which has largely tied its hopes around its acquisition of The Huffington Post. Now speculation has turned to its latest round of layoffs and the possible execution of one of its core products: AIM.

According to the New York Times, some 40 employees were eliminated from AOL last week, and the AIM division felt the deepest hurt. One staffer told the paper that AIM is “eviscerated and now only consists of support staff… nearly all of the West Coast tech team has been killed.”

Supporting the “AIM is dead” mantra is the fact that Jason Shellen has been let go. He was VP of AOL messenger products and was brought over from Things Labs in 2010. Things Labs was the home of Brizzly, a social Web product that was killed off in order to focus efforts on AIM. “We didn’t plan to get rid of the service we spent the prior year or so building, but we knew there was a possibility it might not make sense to continue work on it,” a blog post from the team posted earlier this month reads. “Sure enough, once we set to the task at hand – improving the hell out of AIM – we had little to no time to work on Brizzly, and it became clear that the new things we’re working on are far more worth our time and attention.”

That’s an understatement: until recent renovations, AIM was a sad, pitiful excuse for instant messaging dying a painful death at the hands of GTalk and Facebook Chat. If you haven’t used it since you got your Gmail or Facebook account (like some of us…), it deserves another look. The refresh makes it better looking, less juvenile, and practical with its integrations with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Gmail.

Improvements or not, AIM isn’t in a safe position. A system error yesterday caused more red flags: tons of users were unable to log into their AIM accounts. AOL has since said this was not an indication of abandonment but simply a “hiccup” that the team has fixed. Touche, AOL, but my AIM client continues to misbehave, working on and off all morning. I can sign in but IMing someone (who I can see in my GTalk window is online) simply pings me with a “user unavailable” notice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Let us know if any of you are having problems. 

So the problem with AIM is different than we thought: AOL isn’t outright killing the IM client, it just killed off the team… weeks after launching the overhaul. Now we have a beautiful new interface and expanded, necessary features and no one to clean up the technical messes inside. AOL is trying to go lean on products, and its AIM redesign was a bit ambitious considering the scope of the company’s layoffs.

new aimBut AIM will live (or some version of living). It’s a legacy product and something the AOL will continue to use but probably not invest as much energy or money into. It’s trying to transition into an ad-based Web media network, and AIM probably won’t be a big part of that (email likely will face the same fate). Other divisions should prepare for similar treatment, including the oft-targeted Patch. Though it’s part of the whole Web content strategy, it’s only been criticized by investors as a moneyhole. Still, it’s CEO Tim Armstrong’s passion project, so even if Patch is subject to layoffs, AOL won’t forsake it entirely.

The treatment of AIM and its development team sort of embodies the mindset of once-great, now-grasping Web companies: innovation is overrated. 

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