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Chat goes beyond online services

A slew of new chat software products will let users host their own chat rooms.

Net surfers' constant gabbing is driving companies to create a slew of new features for real-time digital chatter.

The latest chat products aim to cut into the success enjoyed by online services, such as America Online, by making it simple to install chat software or by letting Net users easily host their own chat rooms.

eShare Technologies' Reunion software, to be unveiled next week, will let PC users create chat rooms right on their desktops. The software, which will allow password protection for chat rooms, will ship for free in July, and after three months will cost $79. But end users need only a Web browser to enter Reunion chat rooms.

Also, The Palace launched InstantPalace today, a Java version of its chat software which allows people to create virtual, animated online communities.

Yesterday, Talk City said that by midsummer, it will set up a channel structure for its chat areas according to topics such as "arts & entertainment" or "news & politics." The company will upgrade EZ Talk 2.0, its Java-based, real-time Internet Relay Chat client.

Others are beefing up their offerings, too: Web Chat, Excite, Yahoo, andElectric Minds.

Keeping it simple for novice and veteran Net users alike is the theme for new chat applications. The payoff for companies is increased usership, which can mean better software sales or more eyeballs for the ads some sites sell.

"This is really for any user. There is no real computer experience required. All you need to know is how to use a browser," said Bradley Birnbaum, eShare's chief technology officer.

eShare has already roped in one major supporter, GeoCities. The online community will give Reunion to its 500,000 subscribers.

"We are putting the power in the end-user hands, because they have complete control over their server. Users grant access to just their friends and have a secure conversation with no monitoring the way traditional chat rooms do," Birnbaum said.

The product also includes a channel system so users can find out what kind of topics Reunion sites are discussing. For business customers there is eShare Connections, real-time chat with up to 20 people at a time.

"I think there is a market there because people can communicate with people they know in real time. Up until this point that communication has been mostly between strangers," said Kate Doyle, an analyst with Jupiter Communications who is working on a report about chat.

"I don't thinks it's a huge development in the chat area, but for the small-business or home-office market it's a huge benefit," she added.

The move away from painfully long chat software downloads is good for the market, she said. But chat software's role also will change from being used simply to shoot the breeze.

"Going forward chat will be integrated with other services like online gaming, where users will talk before engaging. It will also be used for customer service and to help online shoppers or people participating in online auctions," she said.