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AOL "test" gives ICQ members a new home: AIM

The online giant downplays a little-known loophole that lets people who use its ICQ instant messaging product connect to their accounts through AOL Instant Messenger, calling the option a "test."

America Online today downplayed a little-known loophole that lets people who use its ICQ instant messaging product connect to their accounts through AOL Instant Messenger, calling the option a "test."

AOL owns both AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ, but it has kept the services distinct and blocked attempts by rivals to connect to its networks. AOL has said it is interested in eventually tearing down those walls, but it denied the test is a first step toward lowering the barriers between its own services before it opens the network to outsiders.

"This was an 8-month-old, small (research and development) test--not an alpha, not a beta--designed to understand some of the technical aspects of instant messaging," said spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.

The test lets people enter their ICQ usernames and passwords into AIM and send messages through the service. ICQ customers who log on through AIM cannot chat with AIM members, only with other ICQ users.

AOL is walking a tightrope with its instant messaging services, which have drawn increasing scrutiny from regulators examining the company's proposed acquisition of Time Warner. AOL sees greater value in keeping ICQ and AIM separate, but competitors worry the company is poised to bring together the two leading services, which combined count some 138 million members.

AOL's latest figures pin AIM at 65 million screen names and ICQ at 73 million downloads. Its closest competitor, Microsoft, had 18 million IM users as of July.

Rivals are pressuring the company to open its network, saying AOL continues to stall on its plans for interoperability.

The online giant underscored the importance of this fight last year by blocking other forms of instant messaging from working with its own services. But this aggressive tactic increased scrutiny from Congress and federal regulators, who have been lobbied heavily by AOL competitors seeking to turn instant messaging into a key issue in the Time Warner merger.

Critics say AOL has dragged its heels in opening its instant messaging network to outside technologies. The Internet service provider says it intends to open its network as long as strict privacy and security measures can be assured to protect its members from spam or hackers.

Since ICQ customers must enter their screen names and passwords into AIM, AOL's argument about ensuring security and privacy seems hollow to Avner Ronen, a founder of rival instant messaging company Odigo, which is pushing for open IM standards.

"I would be interested to see why they're doing the same thing they criticized everyone else for doing," Ronen said.

AOL has maintained a strong wall between AIM and ICQ since the online giant acquired Mirabilis, the Israeli parent company that created ICQ, in June 1998. Soon after the acquisition, AOL moved ICQ's communications network onto its own. Since the IM services share the same network, it would not be difficult for them to communicate. Letting AIM and ICQ work together would create a singular instant messaging colossus.

However, allowing the two services to communicate could be troublesome. AOL sees AIM and ICQ customers as different breeds. The majority of ICQ members live abroad and are technically savvy, according to AOL's Primrose. AIM users are mainstream American consumers who prefer simplicity over ICQ's bells and whistles.

Like AIM, the ICQ software lets people send text messages to other ICQ members in real time. However, it also contains features commonly found on the Web such as a search engine, email and tie-ins to its Web site. It also has an extensive directory of chat rooms listed by subject and provides links to news headlines.

Much of these Web-like additions came in versions that appeared after AOL acquired the service. Executives positioned ICQ as a "desktop communication portal" by adding features aimed at keeping people online longer. Because many ICQ functions drive consumers to its Web site, AOL began including the service in its advertising sales packages. Executives also saw potential for ICQ to become a real-time e-commerce service and have tied it to other communications features, such as Internet phone calling.