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ICQ to ping application developers

The instant-messaging pioneer plans to unveil an API program with the release of ICQ 4.0 next week.

America Online's ICQ subsidiary is hoping to juice up its popular instant messenger with games and other applications, as part of a major software overhaul to be officially unveiled next week.

The Internet pioneer expects to release the latest version of its instant messaging (IM) client, ICQ 4.0, on Tuesday, sources said. At that time, the company will also announce an initiative that for the first time will allow partners to obtain ICQ application programming interfaces (APIs), according to people familiar with the plan.

ICQ is expected to eventually release open APIs to the public, sources said, but it has not yet set a timeframe for general availability.

Tel Aviv, Israel-based ICQ has been working with games publisher Oberon Media and dating service Lava Life on a trial run of its developer program. Both partners have already released applications that run on ICQ 4.0, which was given to beta-testers earlier this month. ICQ 4.0 applications are downloaded and installed much like plug-ins.

"It's been a great experience from our side," said Tal Kerret, chief executive of Oberon. "We've seen great results from people playing and buying games out of the (ICQ) client."

ICQ, through a representative, declined to be interviewed about the upcoming release.

The ICQ tool helped establish instant messaging as a major new communications technology in the late 1990s, but its influence has waned since America Online acquired its maker Mirabilis for $287 million in 1998. ICQ currently has about 20 million audited monthly users, mostly in Europe, Asia and South America, an AOL representative said. AIM, by contrast, counts about 36 million monthly users, mostly in the United States, the representative added.

By publishing open APIs for developers, ICQ hopes to turn its instant messenger into an application platform, sources said--a risky path that was also attempted and later abandoned by AOL's Nullsoft division with its Winamp multimedia player.

ICQ in the past has drawn criticism for becoming too bloated, sparking the company to release a stripped-down version known as ICQ Lite.

ICQ 4.0 includes a new interface, greeting cards and new cell phone text-messaging capabilities.

With Tuesday's release of the update, ICQ partners will be able to use APIs to create almost any kind of program that would run within the instant messenger client. The APIs will support programming in HTML, DHTML and Flash.

"The idea is to use the message window as a 'social desktop'" similar to the way some people use Microsoft's Outlook e-mail application to handle other office tasks, such as meeting scheduling, one source said. "One of the cool things about this is that it's so flexible. Nobody knows what developers might eventually come up with."

Oberon is using ICQ primarily as a marketing tool, Kerret said, giving people a way to test out its products before buying them. The company is also testing out collaborative and competitive games using IM interactivity. Games currently ported to ICQ include Zuma, Puzzle Inlay and SquareOff, according to Kerret.

Down the road, Kerret said ICQ may offer software development kits for building ICQ chat and presence features into third-party applications.

AOL last November announced a deal with Macromedia to offer AIM and ICQ software development kits for the Macromedia Central developer tool. A Macromedia representative said the company expects to release the kits by this summer, although licensing terms have not yet been determined.