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Yahoo mulls new features for Messenger

The company is gauging demand for new instant messaging features that would allow people to listen to music while chatting, or manage a single address book from IM.

Yahoo is gauging demand for new instant messaging features that would allow people to listen to music while chatting, or manage a single address book from IM.

In the past week, Yahoo started issuing surveys to select visitors of its Web network, questioning them on their preferences for potential features on Yahoo Messenger, the company's popular instant chat application.

Fresh features could include games, friend icons, avatars or stealth-mode capabilities within Yahoo Messenger, according to a survey reviewed by CNET News.com on Monday. Another enhancement includes letting IM users listen to music from the application and share information about their music tastes.

"You can create and listen to your own personalized music channel and your friends can see the artist and the song you are listening to in your online status message," according to the survey, which described features that Yahoo is considering.

Yahoo has a long legacy in floating research surveys to visitors, and they can often be a barometer of where the company is headed in new services. In 2002, Yahoo sought visitors' advice before it introduced a subscription-based, streaming-media service, Yahoo Platinum, which it later shuttered. That survey asked consumers how willing they would be to pay for such a service.

In 2001, it gauged consumer demand for a broadband Internet access service, well before it launched its Yahoo-branded service with SBC Communications in 2002. At that time, Yahoo was facing steep declines in online advertising that forced it to scout for other sources of revenue in for-fee services. The company also tested consumer demand for paid Web-based office applications.

Its latest research calls on consumers not only to gauge the worthiness of its proposed IM features?-marking from 1 for "I'd never use it" to 7, "I'd use it a lot"--but it also asks visitors which tools would inspire them to bring a friend on board. Yahoo is attempting to tap the viral nature of IM to gain new subscribers and get friends to tell friends about Yahoo Messenger.

Yahoo is in fierce competition with MSN and America Online for IM users so it is fishing for more hooks to bring people to YIM. According to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings, about 17 million people, or 12 percent of the Net population, actively used Yahoo Messenger in November. It trails MSN with 27 million users, and market leader AOL with 28 million users. ICQ and Trillian follow the three, serving only a fraction of their users.

Yahoo would not comment on any imminent release of new IM features, but said that its research is commonplace.

"We're constantly going to our users to see what resonates with them," said Yahoo spokeswoman Terrell Karlsten. "It's just the best way for us to capture what our users demand from us."

Yahoo outlined nine new features for IM. Apart from the online music feature, Yahoo is exploring adding new emoticons to Messenger, as well as avatars or audibles. Avators would let people create a customizable character to display in the IM window with which it could express moods during chat. Similarly, audibles are small animations with sound that people can use to express themselves.

Yahoo's proposed stealth-mode tool would allow people to use IM without publicizing they are online--a feature Yahoo already offers. A projected facet of that feature would be the ability to select who could see you and who could not.

Finally, Yahoo proposed a feature for an integrated address book that would let people find, manage and talk with all their contacts from one place. That feature could come in handy for people using IM from their mobile phone.