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AOL adds file sharing to ICQ

The AOL Time Warner division upgrades its popular instant messaging service for the first time in a year. Can its new bells and whistles outdo Microsoft and Yahoo?

America Online has released a new version of its ICQ instant messenger, its first facelift of the service in a year.

The ICQ 2001b Beta v5.15, released Tuesday, offers a new file-sharing function that enables people to swap directories with their ICQ buddies, a two-way messaging feature with cell phones, multilingual support, a spell checker, and new graphical renditions of emotions and smiley faces. The upgrade also lets people save a contact list on a computer and make requests to friends to send part or all of their contact lists.

The announcement comes as AOL's competitors are adding bells and whistles they hope will lure customers to their chat services. Microsoft recently blended an instant messenger into its Windows XP operating system with features that allow videoconferencing and phone calls placed through the Web. Meanwhile, Yahoo is testing the latest version of its Yahoo Messenger, adding a feature that puts animated backgrounds in its message window.

"They're all trying to keep pace with one another," said Jarvis Mak, an analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. "Just like any other have to keep innovating (to) keep up."

The AOL Time Warner division still has an upper hand over its competitors. According to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, AOL's ICQ service had 7.9 million unique users at home and work in September, while its AOL Instant Messenger had 28 million. Microsoft's MSN Messenger had 20.4 million unique users, and Yahoo Messenger had 14.4 million.

Despite new features on many services, people lack the availability to communicate with one another through different instant messengers. Chat tools from AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and other companies don't use a common language or standards. To date, AOL has not allowed its own two services to work together.

Did AOL shoot the
messenger? Competitors have long criticized AOL for refusing to open its IM networks. Last year, IMUnified, a coalition of companies that includes Microsoft, Yahoo, AT&T and Excite@Home, made aggressive moves to lobby federal regulators to force AOL to open its IM network as a condition of its merger with Time Warner.

AOL Time Warner was ordered in July to give federal regulators a report detailing efforts to open its networks to rivals. Since then, AOL has been undergoing interoperability trials with Sun Microsystems and IBM's Lotus Sametime instant messenger.

AOL could not be immediately reached for comment.