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The new ICQ

Furthering its pursuit of a "multibranded portal strategy," AOL prepares to launch a new version of its popular instant messaging and chat client.

Furthering its pursuit of a "multibranded portal strategy," America Online is set to launch a new version of its popular instant messaging and chat client, ICQ, with added links aimed at turning it into yet another gateway to the Net.

The upgrade, expected within a few weeks, comes just months after the online giant acquired ICQ's then-parent company Mirabilis for $287 million in cash.

Since the acquisition, America Online's brass has emphasized plans to beef up ICQ's technology infrastructure, in an effort to build up the service's user base while creating a desktop Web guide. In August, after AOL reported fourth-quarter earnings, chief operating officer Bob Pittman revealed to CNET News.com the company's plans to transform its existing Web properties--an arsenal that includes AOL.com, ICQ, CompuServe, and AOL Instant Messenger--into market-focused portals.

AOL since has integrated ICQ into AOL Studios, headed by Ted Leonsis and staffed by Mirabilis's original twentysomething founders, who have maintained their roles as programmers, according to ICQ spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer.

ICQ's new focus on becoming a portal is evidenced in its real-time messaging and chat functions, designed to make the service even more appealing to ICQ's core audience, which ICQ chief operating officer Fred Singer called "a very interesting global, hip, savvy international audience."

The hypercompetitive portal race is characterized by companies trying to cultivate their loyal users through the addition of high-usage services. Such services are called "sticky" because they are designed to keep users on the site and keep them spending more time in front of advertisements, ultimately increasing the site's advertising equity.

The new ICQ portal remains an icon on the desktop that users can activate at any time, rather than a Web-based portal that is only accessible online. That choice is intended to give ICQ better access to its clients, and potentially more, and more consistent, advertising opportunities, especially if the service decides to introduce banner ads down the road.

Included among ICQ's new Web-based features, which are being added to previous offerings revolving around chat and community, are an Inktomi-powered Web search engine, free email, organizational tools such as reminder notes, and Web-based directories.

ICQ also hosts a number of Web content channels, including ones for software downloads, reference materials, news, Usenet newsgroups, weather, and sports, to name a few. Each of the channels feature content from both outside providers and AOL.com Web services, such as My News.

In addition, ICQ links to several Web search engines besides its own, including Excite, Lycos, AOL NetFind, AltaVista, HotBot, LookSmart, and others.

Noticeably absent, however, is portal leader and heavyweight Yahoo, which Singer said opted against a link to its site.

Despite the new software's distinctly portal feel, neither Meyer nor Singer would say whether ICQ's long-range marketing plan is to target the more mainstream Netizens who consistently use Yahoo, Lycos, or Excite.

The two would not say whether users of the new ICQ should expect a publicity onslaught aimed at increased ICQ downloads, but given AOL's deep pockets, as well as its notoriety for launching gargantuan marketing campaigns, such a move remains a distinct possibility. As of last week, 21 million users had downloaded ICQ and registered with the company as users.

Singer emphasized that ICQ would continue to serve a more international audience than AOL.com, which has more of a mainstream market focus and operates independently of ICQ. "We'd never mix the two [audiences]," he said. "That's not the purpose."

For now, the only resource ICQ plans to tap from AOL is infrastructure. "As we understand the [ICQ] community better, the way to grow this is to upgrade technology and capacity," he said. "If you do that right, the thing grows."

Though it received considerable funding from AOL after it was acquired by the online giant, ICQ currently does not support advertising, according to Meyer. But all that is likely to change.

"Down the road, we're looking at certain things," said Meyer. "We would probably have discussions with a small handful of marketing partners. Whatever [happens], it's something that has to bring value and something that's unobtrusive."