In this corner, it's MSN. In this corner, AOL. And in this corner, Yahoo, as the instant messaging (IM) providers put up their dukes -- or, rather, enhancements -- in the fight to attract consumers.
Yahoo has unleashed a battery of extras including avatars, Internet radio and shared search results. America Online has enlisted an ally, new partner WeatherBug, to help it offer weather information. And Microsoft has circled the wagons around an MSN Instant Games Clubhouse featuring game playing for a fee.
"They're coming up with ways to add more creative potential for advertisers while trying to find that balance of giving advertisers a way to get the message out and making sure the core function, communication, isn't hampered," said Joe Laszlo, senior analyst for Jupiter Research, owned by the parent of this company.
"All these guys are worth watching if you're an advertiser," Laszlo said. "IM windows have more of a lasting presence as opposed to a Web page someone will look at and leave."
Edmund Fish, AOL's SVP for desktop messaging, seconded Laszlo's comments, saying the average AIM user has the application open six hours a day. And if AOL has its way, the amount of time might get even longer, in the wake of the online giant's partnership with weather hub WeatherBug.
In April, AOL struck a deal with AWS Convergence Technologies, the firm behind WeatherBug, to integrate the online weather hub with its Instant Messaging client. Weather data from WeatherBug, which streams live local conditions to 15 million users from a nationwide network of 7,000 school- and community-based weather stations, is already available to AIM users on AIM Today.
According to Fish, the growing importance of the social aspect of instant messaging was a factor in the decision to partner with WeatherBug.
"Instant messaging is moving from being about just one-on-one text to being about shared experiences. Weather is one of the most-shared activities; people love to talk about the weather," said Fish.
Almost as ubiquitous as the weather, AOL is the top contender in the IM ring when it comes to numbers. It boasts three instant messaging clients. ICQ, purchased by the company in 1998, had 4 million U.S. users in March 2004, according to comScore Media Metrix. AOL's proprietary IM and AIM clients combined had 44 million U.S. users in March 2004, according to comScore.
Yahoo Messenger had 19 million U.S. users in March 2004, comScore said. The number two contender came out punching in late April, launching a fusillade of Messenger extras ranging from the fanciful to the functional.
On the fanciful side are avatars. Users can set up avatars, customizable cartoon characters or photos, to represent them.
On the functional side is Launchcast, an Internet radio music service that now appears at the bottom of the IM window. Consistent with Fish's comments, the feature lends itself to shared activities. The titles of the songs a user is playing can be displayed so others can see what their friends are listening to and tune in if they choose.
Along these lines, users can search via Yahoo in their IM windows and share the results with friends.
"You just have to type 's: San Francisco restaurants,' for example, in the conversation window, and the results will appear in the window," said a Yahoo spokeswoman. Users can also play chess, checkers and other games in IM, she said.
MSN's new offerings follow a social path as well. MSN Messenger, which comScore said racked up 16.5 million users in March 2004, is testing a program called Threedegrees. Users can listen to music together and converse in groups with this software.
The MSN Instant Games Clubhouse makes it possible for users to play a variety of games together via Messenger. Seven of the games are free. The Wheel of Fortune, Bankshot Billiards Club, Chess Club and Upwords Club cost $10 to $15 a year.
"People who subscribe to a game on Instant Games Clubhouse can invite friends to play with them, even if their friends don't have a subscription. This offers other people who aren't currently subscribers the chance to enjoy the games and potentially subscribe themselves," said MSN Product Manager Brooke Richardson.
As the major players duke it out, perhaps the biggest gladiator is conspicuously missing from the ring: Google. And, though there are rumors about Google with regard to almost everything else, there are few rumors suggesting Google will launch its own IM client. A Google spokesman said only, "We don't comment on future product plans."
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