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New software aims to meld rival messenger products

America Online may have just been thrown a curve ball as it seeks to bat away competitors intent on forcing the company to open its hugely popular proprietary instant messaging services.

America Online may have just been thrown a curve ball as it seeks to bat away competitors intent on forcing the company to open its hugely popular instant messaging services.

Sweden-based My Solutions this week released software dubbed MyCQ that allows people to simultaneously log on to multiple messaging products and communicate on all of them through a single interface.

Although MyCQ does not technically allow incompatible services to talk to one another, it could reduce the gap between rival products by making it easy to sign up for and manage them. For now, the product supports ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), according to documentation on the company's Web site. However, the product is largely untested and may not live up to its promises.

"MyCQ uses a highly sophisticated plug-in technology, which makes it the ideal choice for IM, since you can use MyCQ (at the same time) with any networks of your choice," reads documentation on the service's Web site. "MyCQ is shipped with plug-ins for ICQ and AIM."

AOL refused to comment on the product.

The development comes as AOL continues to lock out rivals from its instant messaging services, efforts that have led to disputes with Microsoft and Tribal Voice over access to its AIM and ICQ networks.

If it's successful, MyCQ or other products like it could subvert AOL's plans to use its dominance in instant messaging to break into telephony and other services. But even if it fails to catch on, MyCQ underscores the deep divide between consumer interests, which naturally gravitate toward standardization and compatibility between competing products, and AOL's broader business plans.

Just this week, AOL executives reiterated the importance of IM to the company's strategic efforts to extend its service beyond the PC.

"People who are starting to use instant messaging and relying on it, and have their Buddy List on screen all the time, are starting to say, 'Why can't I get that Buddy List on my cell phone or that Buddy List on my TV?'" AOL chief executive Steve Case said in a conference call tied to the company's earnings report. "It's a significant opportunity when we think about telecommunications."

But AOL has doggedly refused to allow rivals to access its IM user databases, effectively shutting down interoperability between competing services. Even its own AIM and ICQ services can't pass messages back and forth, although the company has said it may change that policy in the future.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group, said that preventing the two programs from working together is like having a phone company preventing users of different phones from talking to each other. Linking them would only make them stronger, he added.

"(AOL) can build up all the brands they want, but communications systems are worthless if they can't communicate with other communications systems," Enderle said. "Keeping them physically segmented from being able to talk to each other is just plain stupid."

For AOL and its rivals, interoperability Puppet masters: Who controls the Net has been a hairy issue. Last summer, a skirmish ensued after Microsoft's newly launched MSN Messenger service allowed its users to communicate with AIM users. AOL quickly moved to block the software giant, but Microsoft promptly instituted a "fix" to circumvent the blockade.

Accusations began to fly. AOL alleged that Microsoft's actions were akin to a "hack" into its servers, potentially compromising AIM users' security. Microsoft shot back, saying that AOL was turning a blind eye toward creating a standard for all instant messaging services to follow.

Eventually, Microsoft backed out with the release of MSN Messenger 2.0, alleging that AIM contained a software bug that could pose a security risk for MSN users.

Many analysts and industry observers also raised flags over Microsoft's actions. Some said they rang a tone of familiarity with the software company's battle against Netscape in the browser wars.

But Microsoft is not the only company to try to tap into AIM's coveted audience. In December, AOL and Tribal Voice, an instant messaging firm now owned by CMGI, also locked horns when Tribal Voice's PowWow service began tapping into AIM's Buddy List. A similar game of cat and mouse ensued, and the situation still is not resolved.

If it works, MyCQ would avoid these problems, as people would be able to access AOL's databases as legitimate customers of those services. The idea behind MyCQ is to provide a way to use multiple services at the same time.

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