The client, called MSN Messenger Service, will be the software giant's bid to compete in a market dominated by America Online, with AOL Instant Messenger and its Mirabilis ICQ client. As an indication of AOL's lead in the market, its two services combined have amassed more than 30 million registered users.
Microsoft interactive media group vice president Pete Higgins unveiled MSN Messenger at the software giant's annual financial analyst day.
In addition to the release of the service, Higgins formally announced that Microsoft's portal effort, which was previously dubbed "Start," would now be called "MSN.com," according to Microsoft executives who demonstrated the product for CNET NEWS.COM.
As previously reported, Microsoft will begin a multimillion-dollar marketing initiative to incorporate its Web properties and Internet services under one MSN-branded umbrella.
The move revives a brand that had been anesthetized ever since the company shifted its Web strategy from a subscription-based model to an advertising-driven free Web space offering. Internet properties such as Expedia will be renamed "MSN Expedia," for example. In addition, all of Microsoft's current gateways, such as MSN Internet Start, MSN.com, and Onstage.com, will be directed to the main MSN portal site.
"MSN as a brand is what we're investing in, where our online service is," said Ed Graczyk, lead product manager for MSN. "It's the brand that will compete with the Yahoos of the world and the AOLs of the world. MSN is the name of the portal site, and MSN.com will become the single URL."
MSN Messenger was developed jointly by Microsoft and its free Web-based email subsidiary, Hotmail. The client comes with technology features similar to the AOL client, and it also includes privacy settings and other user preference functions. The client is not Macintosh-compatible.
The product will go into beta in August and will be featured prominently in Hotmail, according to Graczyk, adding that the client would become an added perk for the giant's Internet Explorer browser.
"Ultimately the goal is that this, like Net Meeting and some of the other add-on products, would be one of the optional installation features for Internet Explorer," he said.