Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) America Online has had plenty of challenges in recent years, but most people agree that AIM, its dominant instant messenger service, has remained one of its biggest strengths. Although AOL has traditionally guarded AIM rather jealously, there have been signs that it's opening up -- at least a little bit. The latest step in that direction was Monday's announcement that AOL will allow developers to tinker around with AIM, in hopes of expanding and extending its features.

It may be tempting to consider this an "open-source" move on AOL's part, users may be getting excited by the idea that souped-up altered versions of AIM might finally interoperate with competing instant messaging products from Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). Honestly? I wouldn't hold my breath.

Interoperability's still not among the ways that developers can tinker with AIM. Instead, AOL has sanctioned a possible range of new and potentially exciting ways to integrate AIM with Internet applications across the Web. According to AOL's press announcement, developers will be able to create customized plug-ins, stand-alone communications clients, and popular application "mashups" -- combining AIM data with information from other sites, such as Flickr photos or Google maps.

Some of the news articles reporting on AIM's new open-mindedness mention social networking, an idea that makes lots of sense. It bodes well for AIM to link itself to popular Web sites like News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) red-hot MySpace.

It's not just about social networking, either. Collaborative social services on the Internet are getting a lot of buzz as the next new thing -- witness Yahoo!'s acquisitions of small operations like Del.icio.us. There are probably many ways we can't even imagine yet that real-time communication will become an important part of the shifting Web experience. AOL likely wants to tap into heretofore undiscovered channels -- and users -- for its popular product.

AIM currently has more than 50% of the instant messenger market, and with high-profile rivals hoping to take a bite out of its dominance, it certainly wouldn't do for AOL to rest on its laurels at this point. Meanwhile, harvesting the creativity of developers all around the Web bodes well for AIM, too. I'd imagine that AOL will be increasingly willing to change as it comes up with new strategies to stay relevant on the changing Web.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.