As first reported by CNET News.com, MSN Messenger Service will alert users when their friends, family members, and colleagues are online, allowing them to exchange online messages and email with the more than 40 million users of MSN Hotmail, Microsoft's free Web-based email service.
MSN Messenger is also compatible with rival and frontrunner AOL Instant Messenger.
Separately, the software giant also said it has joined several leading Internet messaging companies to voice continued support for developing a standard protocol for instant messaging. The protocol is intended to make it easier for consumers to locate, connect to, and communicate with others on the Web and allow independent technologies to be compatible across the Internet.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a volunteer organization of individuals, is trying to develop new Internet standards specifications. Engineers and developers from Activerse, a majority-owned subsidiary of CMGI; Disney's Infoseek; PeopleLink; and Tribal Voice have been participating in discussions.
AOL was not mentioned as a member of the group.
Currently, several companies have instant messaging applications that can only communicate with others who have the same application. This limitation creates isolated communities that prevent people from easily finding and communicating with everyone they want. The task force likens the situation to having a telephone that only makes calls to customers who have the same brand of telephone.
"Just as consumers expect different telephones to work with one another, so they should expect different instant messaging services to talk to each other," said Microsoft vice president of the consumer and commerce group Brad Chase in a statement.
Chase noted that MSN's messaging service offers "the interoperability people are demanding."
MSN Messenger Service is tightly integrated with many Microsoft communications tools, including the following:
- Microsoft Internet Explorer 5, allowing one-click access to the service;
- Outlook Express 5, letting people check the online status of other MSN messaging users who are in Outlook's contacts database;
- MSN Hotmail, which shares the same login name and password with MSN Hotmail;
- NetMeeting, which allows users to have online video or voice conferences using NetMeeting conferencing software.
Even with these features, Microsoft has a long way to go to catch up with its entrenched rivals, including Yahoo Pager. AOL's ICQ has 35 million registered users, about double AOL's industry-leading 17 million ISP subscribers.