Microsoft, AOL Boost Messaging in Xbox, PS2

The rivals move to a new platform as the public IM wars continue.
Instant messaging owes much of its near-ubiquity to its teenaged early adopters. Now, it looks as if the giants in the IM field might again be turning to youth-focused segments to promote their networks.

But this time, the stakes could be greater, since home video games are no longer merely the reserve of kids -- the average game-player these days is into their mid-20's.

Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled a host of enhancements to its Xbox console at the 2003 Electronic Entertainment Expo video game industry confab in Las Vegas -- highlighting new features that link the system to the company's IM and wireless messaging clients, and other improvements that further the device's built-in presence and messaging capabilities.

The new system, due out later this year, will support connectivity to Microsoft's .NET Alerts Service, which can broadcast instant messages to its MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger PC-based IM clients as well as SMS-enabled mobile phones and other wireless devices. The integration will provide users with the ability to do things like set up games with friends even while the other player is offline.

"We're going to jack you into the online universe like no other company can," said Microsoft's J Allard, corporate vice president for Xbox, during the company's presentation at E3 earlier this week. "You'll ... be able to receive game invites and notifications about games, downloads, leagues, tournaments, and more from any MSN Alert-capable device, including cell phones, PCs, Pocket PCs, and even the cool new SPOT watches" -- a reference to the radio-based, instant messaging-enabled digital wristwatch created by Microsoft and National Semiconductor Corp.

The move to link Microsoft's popular Xbox video game system to its IM and wireless messaging services serves as the latest stage in an expansion of the company's .NET Alerts strategy, which Microsoft has been steadily ramping up since the service's unveiling in late 2001. The service offers notifications from Microsoft (such as weather or stock updates from MSN content partners,) as well as companies licensed to access to the broadcast network to communicate with customers. So far, companies that have signed on to use .NET Alerts include eBay and McAfee. Earlier this year, several third-party vendors also announced that they would provide access to the .NET Alerts Service.

Upgraded presence

Other enhancements to the Xbox expand on built-in communications features already found in the device and its online service, called Xbox Live. Those build on the system's messaging and presence features that had been included since Xbox Live made its debut in 2001.

For one thing, first-generation Xbox Live users have been able to see whether their friends were online and able to play a new game -- based on searching for their friends' user IDs, dubbed Gamertags. The system also supported a 100-person Friends list, which keeps track of gaming companions' availability. The Friends list also shows users' progress within a game and whether there are empty slots so others can join, and supports "invisibility."

But the system fell short in that users were unable to contact other players who were in the middle of a game. That's been resolved in the latest iteration, which offers presence detection even while a user is playing an offline, single-player titles.

The system also now will support more advanced community features, such as "Live Now," a chat room for voice instant messaging, which takes place by way of a headset included with Xbox Live.

"When you fire up Xbox this fall, you'll instantly hook up with friends, check your stats, and see what's new on the service," Allard said. "Live Now delivers what the Xbox Live community asked for the most -- a place where you can hang out and talk with your friends before and after competing on Xbox Live."

And in this corner...

But Microsoft isn't alone in beefing up its console's messaging capabilities. The Redmond, Wash. software giant's nemesis in the instant messaging space, America Online , said Wednesday that it would work with Sony Corp. to roll out messaging services for the Japanese technology colossus' PlayStation 2 console -- Sony's market-leading home video game system that Microsoft is aiming to challenge with its own.

Specifically, Sony and AOL were demoing a service they call "AIM Talk," which connects PS2 owners to PC-based AOL Instant Messenger users, as well as other AIM Talk users connecting via their PlayStation 2 consoles. To chat via voice with AIM users, PS2 owners must use a headset, similar to the one provided with the Xbox Live service, and which is scheduled to ship later this year.

"It can not only allow voice interaction on the box, it goes to the next level," said Matthew Bromberg, vice president and general manager of AOL Games. Chatting is "not just among people on the PlayStation 2, it's among any of the 120 million registered AIM users, whether on the PlayStation or the PC. We're excited about opening up the world of communications on game consoles."

Interestingly, AIM Talk included only audio messaging -- that is, text-based IM wasn't supported in the technology demo.

"The demo as we've done it is just voice," Bromberg said. "We have a strong belief that the experience on a game console is not about a USB keyboard and typing. It requires more of a voice-centric kind of experience."

AOL, which has worked with Sony to bring online content to the PS2 since 2001, said plans are not yet finalized about how the technology will make it to market. AIM Talk and other AOL content require a hard drive for the PS2, which isn't expected for some time.

It also isn't clear whether AIM Talk also will include video connectivity. Videoconferencing via AIM is prohibited under the Federal Communications Commission's conditions governing the 2001 AOL-Time Warner merger. However, AOL is seeking to get the ban lifted, claiming that there's little threat of it gaining a monopoly on such advanced, high-speed IM-based services -- a condition that the FCC had been aiming to avoid with the restriction.

Additionally, earlier this week at E3, Sony took the opportunity to again show off its upcoming "Eye Toy" video camera for the PS2. The company has said that in addition to games that rely on motion-detection, it imagines that users will ultimately be able to use the device for video chat. The camera will ship in October.

The sparring between the two console makers comes as Microsoft continues to try to rival Sony's lead in the industry. Despite Sony's sizable market share -- the company shipped about 22 million consoles in 2002, versus about 5 million for Microsoft -- the two-year-old Xbox and the PlayStation 2, which debuted the PS2 in 2000, both began offering Internet connectivity only last fall. Industry watchers say the battle for recurring revenue from online users will be one of the prime factors in either console's continued success.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of

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