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Microsoft flicks on IM Webcam

Heating up the features battle with AOL and Yahoo, Microsoft gives MSN Messenger 5.0 users the ability stream live video to others.

Microsoft Tuesday said it has begun offering Webcam functionality on its MSN Messenger instant messaging software, heating up the battle of features against America Online and Yahoo.

The new application allows MSN Messenger 5.0 users to stream live videos to other contacts using the software and a Webcam. Logitech will host the video streams on its servers, and will allow 56kbps modems a resolution of three to five frames per second (fps) and broadband as high as 15fps.

The new Webcam functionality is available for download from MSN's Web site.

The announcement comes as instant messaging continues to grow in popularity among consumers and businesses as an alternative form of communication beyond e-mail and the phone. People using IM clients can exchange data in real time, typically in the form of text messages and software files. New applications for IM are also beginning to gather steam, such as collaborating on documents and using multimedia and voice over IP.

Proponents of the technology have also touted IM's ability to detect a contact's presence, allowing data to be transmitted only to the location where the person is online.

Microsoft has pinpointed IM as an important technology that could help drive sales of its server software to corporations. The company last week launched Greenwich, which will offer secure IM exchanges behind the corporate firewall, and will let companies interoperate with MSN Messenger users, but through third-party intermediary IMLogic.

This isn't the first time Microsoft has supported video streaming through IM. When the software giant launched its Windows XP operating system in 2001, it included its own OS-based IM service called Windows Messenger that allows video conferencing via Webcams.

Microsoft is not alone in adding Webcam functionality to its instant messaging software. Yahoo last August launched a high-speed Web cam application, which lets people transmit video at 20fps.

AOL, however, has not offered any multimedia features on AOL Instant Messenger, the world's largest free IM service. As part of the Federal Communications Commission's approved merger of AOL and Time Warner in January 2001, AOL must open its IM network if it launches "advanced IM" services such as video over broadband connections. However it's unclear whether launching a Webcam would violate AOL's restrictions.