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Comcast to launch IM with video

The nation's largest cable company is planning to launch its own IM service midyear, equipped with Web cam features.

Cable and broadband giant Comcast plans to launch a video instant messaging service later this year, further highlighting the cable giant's effort to become a Web portal for its subscribers. The new unnamed IM service will launch in the middle of 2005 and come bundled with video streaming capabilities, Comcast spokeswoman Jeanne Russo confirmed. The video addition would be similar to features offered by Web portal giants America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN that allow users to communicate via Web cam during IM text chats.

Comcast's move to offer IM is not surprising, since the company has the most broadband Internet customers in the country--6.5 million reported in the third quarter of last year. IM has become one of the most popular Internet applications, allowing people to exchange text messages in real-time. IM leaders AOL, MSN and Yahoo have amassed hundreds of millions of users and have steadily beefed up their services with bells and whistles such as animated icons and fancy wallpapers.

For more than a year, Comcast has been building out its service with more high-bandwidth multimedia features. For example, subscribers can attach a 45-second Web cam video clip into e-mail messages, or send up to 10 photos with audio narration. The company gave away Web cams to new subscribers during the third quarter last year, and offered discounts for existing customers.

"Video IM would be next iteration of that natural progression in the road map," Russo said.

Comcast's Russo said the company would use third-party IM technology for parts of the service, but she would not comment on which companies are being considered.

Comcast's interest in video IM was first revealed on Monday by CEO Brian Roberts during a presentation at Smith Barney's Global Entertainment, Media & Telecommunications Conference. Roberts added that the company will release more customization features in its Web portal this year.

Roberts also outlined Comcast's plan to offer Internet voice calls, or VoIP, to its subscribers. Comcast plans to market the service to 15 million customers in its national footprint by the end of the year, Roberts said. Comcast joins other companies, notably Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, in offering a VoIP service throughout its markets as part of its "triple play" package of voice, video and high speed Internet.