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Microsoft to take instant messaging wireless

In a move that resembles rival America Online's AOL Anywhere strategy, the company says it will extend its MSN Messenger service so that users can access messages from their cell phones, set-top boxes, and handheld computers.

In a move that resembles the AOL Anywhere strategy, Microsoft today announced plans to extend its MSN Messenger service so that people could send and retrieve messages from their cell phones, TV set-top boxes, and handheld computers.

Microsoft said it will integrate MSN Messenger with the MSN Mobile Service and provide versions of MSN Messenger for the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, the Microsoft WebTV Network services, and Macintosh computers.

The software giant said it is positioning MSN to be the first major portal site to provide wireless information.

The move underscores the ongoing battle between Microsoft and AOL, which is the dominant player in instant messaging with its AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ properties. The two companies have been fighting since Microsoft launched its effort in July, which allowed users to communicate with AOL Instant Messenger users. AOL responded by blocking MSN Messenger from communicating with its users.

The two companies have been battling ever since, with Microsoft working around AOL's efforts to keep MSN Messenger users from communicating with its users, and AOL coming up with more barricades. Last week, Foster City, California-based FaceTime Communications said AOL planned to license access to its network of 45 million registered IM users to the company, which offers a service that lets e-commerce and brick-and-mortar firms offer customer support via IM.

Microsoft said it will continue updating its MSN Messenger to skirt AOL's blocks.

"We are still committed to provide interoperability to our users," said Deanna Sanford, Microsoft's lead product manager for MSN.

MSN Messenger Service will alert users when their friends, family members, and colleagues are online, allowing them to exchange online messages and email with the more than 40 million users of MSN Hotmail, Microsoft's free Web-based email service.

"We plan to deliver MSN Messenger in a variety of ways so people can easily send instant messages to their friends and family who might be using WebTV, a Windows CE-based device, a Macintosh, or a cellular phone," Yusuf Mehdi, director of marketing for Microsoft's Consumer and Commerce Group, said in a statement. "We want to make it easy for consumers to communicate the way they want."

In addition, Microsoft plans to make it possible for other network operators, such as cable companies, satellite companies, telephone companies, or ISPs, to use the MSN Messenger Service as part of an Internet-TV offering, by integrating it as a feature of the Microsoft Television Platform Adaptation Kit (Microsoft TVPAK).

Microsoft said the new MSN Messenger Service for Macintosh is available for download from the MSN Messenger Service Web site.

But Bruce Kasrel, an analyst at Forrester Research, pointed out that though Microsoft's move into wireless and other Web devices is smart, it's not original. He said AOL still leads Microsoft as an Internet service brand among mainstream consumers.

"It's just a carbon copy," Kasrel said. "This is like Sanyo releasing a new TV set...who cares? It's when Sony releases one that people care."

Microsoft continues to play a game of catch-up with AOL. Microsoft has tried unsuccessfully in the past to compete against the online giant with its MSN online service.

But as history shows, Microsoft does not take any battle lightly. And as AOL rolls out software products from its Netscape-Sun Microsystems alliance, AOL could be stepping into Microsoft's turf this time around.

News.com's Jim Hu contributed to this report.