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Instant messaging start-up connects AIM, ICQ

Odigo releases new software that will tear down the barrier between America Online's popular instant messaging services.

Start-up instant messaging firm Odigo says it has released new software that will tear down the barrier between America Online's popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ.

The announcement could mark the first instance in which people who use the two services can communicate with each other. AOL owns both instant messaging services. Since acquiring ICQ in June 1998, the online giant has maintained a wall between the two services, but it has always acknowledged it would let customers communicate with each other if there was enough demand.

Now it seems New York-based Odigo has taken matters into its own hands. The company says it has created software that not only connects people who use its own IM service to AIM and ICQ users, but also lets customers of AOL's two services talk to each other. AIM and ICQ are the leading IM services, with 91 million registrants in AIM's Buddy List and 62.4 million registered ICQ users, according to an April AOL earnings report.

Odigo has 600,000 registered users. Accessing AIM customers is a logical step as the company tries to boost its service's popularity, according to Avner Ronen, an Odigo co-founder.

"Our users have also asked for AOL interoperability, and we've done that," Ronen said.

AOL declined to comment on Odigo's new software.

With the new software, Odigo acts as a meeting ground for customers. People who download the software, dubbed Odigo 2.5, can sign in to their AIM and ICQ accounts simultaneously. The software then loads all of their buddy lists, and they are able to chat with anyone on those lists.

Odigo users do not need to have AIM or ICQ downloaded on their PCs, but they do need to have screen names from both services to access their respective Buddy Lists.

The release is the latest move by New York-based Odigo to communicate with AOL's instant messaging users through its back door. The company in January released a version of its instant messaging software that was interoperable with AOL's ICQ.

Odigo is one of many start-ups attempting to circumvent AOL's grip on instant messaging. Swedish firm My Solutions recently released software dubbed MyCQ that allows people to simultaneously log on to multiple messaging products and communicate on all of them through a single interface.

Other start-ups are developing ways to integrate the functions of different messaging products. These include open-source instant messenger Jabber, Everybuddy and Bantu.

While the idea may catch on, efforts to tap into AIM's list of users without prior consent historically have sparked swift action from the online giant.

Last summer, when Microsoft launched its MSN Messenger product, the Puppet masters: Who controls the  Net software maker allowed its customers to communicate with AIM users by tapping into its protocols. AOL quickly blocked Microsoft and criticized the company's unauthorized move as a "hack" into its servers. The two companies played cat-and-mouse in the ensuing months until Microsoft threw in the towel last November.

Other Internet companies have tried forcing AOL's hand in opening its coveted audience to outsiders. Disagreements between AOL and rivals including CMGI's Tribal Voice and AT&T have spilled into open warfare over unauthorized attempts by these companies to tap into AIM's database of usernames.

AOL has said it is willing to work with anyone in the industry to bring instant messaging to consumers. The company has struck deals with more than a dozen companies--including IBM, Novell, Lycos, EarthLink, Apple Computer and Juno Online Services--to integrate AIM technology into their products.

But critics allege AOL has backed away from assisting the development of an industry standard for universal messaging. They say its licensing deals only provide for the further deployment of AIM and do not offer a way for rival services to interoperate.

Many of AOL's instant messaging rivals are getting impatient. Last week, Yahoo said it would begin exploring ways to join forces with other companies to develop an instant messaging standard.

AOL rivals have also asked federal regulators to treat the Internet giant's You've got Time Warner refusal to open its network to outsiders as a key competitive issue relating to its pending merger with Time Warner.

CMGI's iCast and Tribal Voice filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission last week, asking officials to "encourage" AOL to open its network.

Whether Odigo will receive a similar response from AOL remains to be seen. Odigo's Ronen said the company has tried contacting AOL, but the online giant has not returned its phone calls.

Nonetheless, Ronen does not see anything wrong with forcing interoperability on AOL.

"They haven't blocked ICQ, and we are grateful for that, and our users are grateful for that," Ronen said. "I don't see any reason for them blocking us."

But Jupiter Communications analyst Seamus McAteer said Odigo's move is likely to bring action from AOL. As it stands, the AIM and ICQ networks are its own property, and tapping into their servers could spark AOL to block access.

"AOL owns the infrastructure; it paid a lot of money to acquire ICQ," McAteer said. "If I'm a business manager at AOL and I'm seeing somebody cannibalizing my relationship with my user base, I'm going to start raising red flags."