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Microsoft plays catch-up with Instant Messenger

After numerous delays, Microsoft plans to release its instant message software later this week, the giant's answer to America Online's popular Instant Messenger and ICQ.

Following numerous delays, Microsoft is planning to release its instant message software later this week, the giant's answer to America Online's popular Instant Messenger and ICQ offerings.

The new MSN Messenger service is scheduled to launch on Thursday, sources told CNET News.com. The software's features are designed to integrate MSN Hotmail, the company's free email service, and make it possible for users to employ both MSN Messenger and other instant messaging software.

Microsoft representatives declined comment.

Microsoft unveiled plans last July for MSN Messenger, which was supposed to go into its beta-test phase in August 1998. See related story: Mapping MSN's changes But the company said in April that difficulties in integrating Hotmail had caused a holdup.

Analysts and others instead blamed the delay on confusion within Microsoft's management ranks and its ever-changing content strategy. That strategy took yet another turn today with the announcement that Microsoft will sell the city guide portion of its Sidewalk service to rival Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch.

In the interim, Microsoft's rivals have gained tremendous popularity on the Net. For example, AOL's ICQ commands a 35 million registered users, about double AOL's industry-leading 17 million ISP subscribers. Despite the huge user figures, however, the chat software is not a money maker.

CNET News.com obtained a copy of Microsoft's MSN Messenger software, which looks similar to the Yahoo Pager. Buttons across the top allow users to add new contacts, send messages, and indicate status--such as "Be right back" or "Out to lunch"--and links to Hotmail and the MSN home page.

When users add contacts by entering their email addresses or names, the service will list what messaging clients a contact has if the user right-clicks on the contact's name and looks under "Properties." For the moment, it only lists MSN Messenger.

In addition, the MSN Messenger software lets users know during an instant message "conversation" when the other person is typing a message, in an attempt to relieve the problem of overlapping messages.

As part of the Hotmail integration, if users are "talking" with contacts on the MSN Messenger service and receive email at their Hotmail accounts, the Messenger client alerts them immediately with a sound and a message saying who sent the email, and offers an easy click-through to the account. Because users have already signed on to Messenger with their Hotmail passwords, they do not have to log in to the email service again.

Yahoo also has tried to integrate other aspects of its service within its Yahoo Pager instant messaging client. For example, the software has links to its free Yahoo Mail service and alerts users if they have new messages when they log on.