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ICQ gets back to basics

The popular instant messaging service releases a slimmed-down version, called "ICQ Lite," that targets first-time users.

ICQ is taking a step back to simpler times.

The popular instant messaging service owned by America Online on Monday released a slimmed-down version, called "ICQ Lite," that targets first-time users with its simplicity. The service is smaller, with a 1.7MB file size compared with the standard 3.6MB. But most notably, ICQ Lite comes with fewer of the bells and whistles than its full-featured ICQ cousin.

"ICQ Lite appeals to consumers who have never used ICQ before, as well as long-standing ICQ users who don't always need all the options of the full-featured ICQ," Ariel Yarnitsky, co-general manager of ICQ, said in a statement.

ICQ Lite focuses on the basic elements of instant messaging such as real-time text exchange and a search engine for other ICQ users. The software lets people send messages to cell phone users via SMS (Short Message Service) and transfer files, and it offers multilingual support.

Acquired in 1998 by AOL, ICQ has become one of the most widely used instant messaging services in the world, alongside AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Throughout the years, ICQ has been a test bed for various efforts in making money off instant messenging through advertising and sponsorships. AOL executives in the late 90s also tried to make ICQ a "desktop portal," where the client would offer search results, free e-mail, news, stock quotes and Internet telephone calls on top of its standard functions.

Instant messaging has been one of AOL's most powerful assets because it owns the two largest software services. However, despite having common ownership, AOL has stopped short of allowing the two services to communicate, claiming that ICQ's more international community does not have an interest in chatting with AIM's more U.S.-centric users.

AOL's role in instant messaging has attracted the attention of federal regulators who imposed limitations on AIM's future development as part of America Online's merger with Time Warner. Some of AOL's most vocal critics, such as Microsoft, have remained mum because they've been able to gain traction despite a lack of interoperability between competing systems.