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Nokia cell phone chat may compete with AOL

The mobile phone giant releases a new cell phone-based chat system, which could ultimately compete with instant messaging efforts from America Online and others.

Mobile phone giant Nokia released a new cell phone-based chat system today, which could ultimately compete with instant messaging efforts from America Online and a host of new start-ups.

Dubbed Nokia FriendsTalk, the service adds more conventional chat room and instant messaging features to the rudimentary text messaging system already popular in many overseas markets.

The technology helps position the phone manufacturer for a battle some analysts say is just around the corner, as the popularity of Internet-based instant messaging spills over to the world of the Net-connected mobile phone.

Nokia has a leg up in this market already, at least in terms of experience. In Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia, mobile phone customers are already far along the path toward adopting phones as text messaging systems.

Analysts estimate that close to 8 billion messages a month are sent using a technology called Short Messaging System (SMS), a text-message system that has not taken hold widely in the United States.

Nokia's new chat system is based on SMS technology, expanding existing one-on-one services by giving people the ability to join public chat rooms, or create "friends lists" not unlike those found in the popular ICQ or AOL Instant Messenger software. In later releases, the FriendsTalk service will support the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the most common mobile phone Net-browsing technology in the United States, the company said.

Several potentially powerful players in the United States have already unveiled mobile instant messaging initiatives. AOL is working to bring its popular system to cell phones and is already working with Motorola. It's also developing a version of this Mobile Messenger for Nokia cell phones and the popular BlackBerry pagers. Microsoft has announced similar plans for its MSN Messenger.

Smaller competitors such as @Mobile and Tribal Voice also have announced technology linking traditional Internet instant messaging networks with cell phones.

The Nokia system initially will be available only in Europe, where SMS is more prevalent. The company says it has not announced plans to move the service to the United States but has not ruled that out.