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MSN releases new version of IM

A new version of Microsoft's instant chat software MSN Messenger offers parental controls and other features only for paid subscribers of MSN 8.

Microsoft on Thursday launched a new version of its instant chat software MSN Messenger, which offers parental controls and other features only for paid subscribers of MSN 8.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company made the upgrade of MSN Messenger 5 widely available on Friday.

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The free version includes such features as a new member directory, customizable news, and spam-blocking controls. As previously reported, for MSN 8 subscribers, the tool lets parents monitor and regulate children?s IM use and enables people using different computers to surf the Web together.

The new IM software coincides with Microsoft?s marketing push for MSN 8, an upgrade to its proprietary Web software that was introduced publicly Thursday. The company is spending $300 million to advertise the revamped technology in heated competition with AOL Time Warner's America Online unit, which debuted its newest software, AOL 8.0, last week.

With the upgrade, MSN Messenger will play a behind-the-scenes role in selling Microsoft?s paid Net-access software by including features built for parents--a core market for AOL. Parental controls have long been a calling card for AOL, which also introduced new IM software this summer. AOL said it has 16 million people using its parental controls on the service.

Microsoft representatives were not available for comment.

The update also comes two months after Yahoo unveiled new instant messaging software, Messenger 5.5. The updated technology includes a much higher transmission quality for Webcam users with broadband connections, as well as a new set of animated "emoticons" and background images.

With MSN Messenger, MSN 8 subscribers are given enhanced parental controls, which can be applied to online service client and e-mail features. Parents can use the controls to restrict who their child communicates with, either individually or in chat rooms. The limitations would follow the child even to other computers. The service will also provide a weekly report of a child's IM activity.

For users of the free MSN Messenger 5, new features include an improved address book, with the capability of sharing Hotmail and MSN contacts. It also packs new member directory location features and the ability to flag buddies who are online using a mobile device such as a cell phone.