MSN IM beta hits 2 million downloads

Microsoft is keeping mum about its newest IM service, but 2 million copies of its "private" beta have already been downloaded, according to a memo obtained by CNET News.com.

Microsoft is keeping mum about the next version of its instant-messaging service, but 2 million copies of its "private" beta have already been downloaded, according to a company memo obtained by CNET News.com.

Details of MSN Messenger version 6 surfaced a month ago when Microsoft and a list of features on its Web site. Version 6 incorporates more interactive perks into the message window, such as a Webcam, real-time games, audio chat and custom "emoticons."

The memo, penned by Blake Irving, vice president of MSN's communications division, is a flowery account of the software's private test efforts to date. Calling it "totally addictive" and citing his 14-year-old sister-in-law as one surprise beta tester, Irving heralded the product's viral appeal.

"We have seen unprecedented global consumer enthusiasm for this version," Irving wrote.

A Microsoft representative declined to comment on the memo and would not offer a timeframe for version 6's public test release.

Instant messaging has become a major initiative inside Microsoft. MSN Messenger, which is a free download, has gained considerable popularity against rival services from America Online and Yahoo. While IM's basic function allows people to exchange text in real time, services are building more features into their IM software, such as video and audio chats, graphics, PC-to-cell phone messaging, and customized "skins," or decorative graphics.

Microsoft's stake in IM goes beyond smiley icons. The company's Windows XP operating system has its own IM client called Windows Messenger, which Microsoft now plans to sell to businesses as standalone server software. The company will initially sell the product, called Office Real Time Communications Server 2003, as an enterprise-class IM service that includes security and manageability in order to meet corporate standards. Future versions will integrate Net phone calling and video conferencing into the IM product to create an IP-based network of real-time communications.

Microsoft also has a version of MSN Messenger bundled with security features for corporations. However, MSN and Windows messengers are separate products that do not currently interoperate.

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