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Microsoft to test new Messenger

Beta expected soon for Windows Live Messenger, an update that takes the IM program into new areas, including Net telephony.

Microsoft has started limited testing of Windows Live Messenger, an update that expands the consumer instant messaging software into areas such as Internet phone calls.

The revamp is essentially an expansion of MSN Messenger. It adds a number of features and continues the program's migration from a place to share short text messages into a manager for any number of modes of communication.

Various enthusiast sites, including and BetaNews, reported that a private beta of Live Messenger is imminent, while another fan site, Messenger Blog, offered purported screenshots of the new software. Microsoft initially declined to comment on Monday, but the company had promised a beta version would come this month.

Microsoft showed a preview of the instant messaging program at its Live services kickoff early last month.

Late Monday, Microsoft confirmed its plans and offered more details on a joint effort with MCI to allow customers to place calls using Live Messenger. Microsoft said the the MCI arrangement is not exclusive and that the two companies will initially make the calling features available to customers in five countries: the United States, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Once signed up, though, customers will be able to call to and from more than 220 countries. During the beta period, customers will get one hour of free calling from MCI, with rates for more time starting at about 2 cents a minute for calls to the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and western Europe during the beta testing period. Final pricing has yet to be determined.

"It's a very, very limited beta," said MSN Product Manager Karin Muskopf. "We're talking tens of thousands (of people)."

The software is expected to be available to more people and in more regions in the first half of next year.

Muskopf would not say when a publicly available test version will be available or when the final version will ship.

"We're going to see how this beta goes," she said.

As for folder sharing, the new version contains the feature that Microsoft showed in November in which two buddies can create a shared folder simply by dragging a file into their conversation. Either person can add or modify files, with any changes stored on Microsoft's servers and kept in sync on both users' computers. Live Messenger also adds a new contact manager, carrying over address and phone information from MSN Hotmail.

The company also demonstrated last month versions of Live Messenger that would allow it to act as a means of managing contact information and as a hub for social networking, though those features are not part of this beta.

Plans for the Messenger beta were earlier reported by Microsoft Watch.