is taking the wraps off the new version of its public IM client, MSN Messenger, with an eye to topping features offered in competitors' services.
Officially, the release is a preview version of MSN Messenger 6, and will be made available for download later today. But it's likely that little will be changed in the final edition, due out as an automatic update next quarter.
Instead, Microsoft's already done much to dramatically revamp MSN Messenger's look and feel from previous editions.
As previously reported, the new client features better integration with Webcams, through a partnership with Webcam player Logitech. That's one feature sure to be akin to rubbing salt in the wounds of rival AOL, which is forbidden under an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission from deploying similar services using its broadband facilities. The New York media giant is petitioning the FCC to lift the ban, and also said it's exploring interoperability with Microsoft's IM network, which would also satisfy regulators' conditions for removing the video IM limitation.
Webcam integration is increasingly important to Microsoft, as it seeks to turn the PC into a hub for communications (witness the prototype "Athens" PC unveiled last month, which incorporates messaging, telephony and video-sharing). In the enterprise, the foundation of that hub is like to be its upcoming "Greenwich" Real-Time Communications platform; for consumers, it looks like MSN Messenger will be the nexus of Microsoft's person-to-person collaborative technologies.
To that end, the client also features enhancements enabling users to more easily send files or photos to each other; as with earlier versions of Messenger, the client also adds the ability to start an audio conversation, make a Voice-over-IP telephone call, send e-mail, share whiteboards, or begin application sharing and co-browsing. (Co-browsing, previously available only to Microsoft MSN 8 subscribers, becomes free to all with the new version.)
Along the same lines, the new MSN Messenger also offers "Launch Site," an interface for chatters to engage in games and other collaborative activities, like a "Magic 8-Ball"-like Decision Wheel. Messenger 6 also will enable users to send and receive text messages over a cell phone or PDA, or to receive messages on an MSN Direct watch.
On the interface side, the new MSN client features more than 30 new emoticons, including several that are animated. Perhaps more importantly, users can create their own emoticons, which then can be seen by others during conversations.
Other interface enhancements ape past improvements to rival clients by America Online and Yahoo!. For instance, users can choose a "Display Picture," which is more or less the same thing as an AIM Buddy Icon. They also can choose a personalized background "theme" from a number of built-in options. The theme appears within IM message windows, serving as a backdrop to conversations -- similar to Yahoo!'s IMVironments and AOL's AIM Expressions, both of which have been used as vehicles for advertisers in the past. (AOL, which attracted few to the service beyond in-house clients from sibling Time Warner properties, recently began charging AIM users for its Expressions, although the service is free to users of the America Online service.)
Unlike other clients, however, MSN Messenger 6 users can also use their own pictures or photos to create their customized backgrounds, also which can be shared with others.
Such efforts aims to appeal to net-savvy users' desire to customize their Internet experience and their virtual appearance to others. That desire to customize and modify MSN Messenger and other IM clients has given rise to a whole slew of enthusiast Web sites, like Mess.be. Now, Microsoft is looking to co-opt some of that sentiment with the new release.
"MSN Messenger 6 lets everyone create their own digital personality and play in a virtual playground with friends from around the block or around the world," said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president for MSN. "Consumers told us they wanted a place to gather and have fun online, and we've delivered a hallmark example of MSN's commitment to delivering the best communication services for consumers worldwide."
To promote customization, Microsoft said it would launch a community on its MSN portal allowing users to share custom emoticons, backgrounds and Display Pictures.
A number of technical improvements also are designed to better the consumer experience. The new client includes improved anti-spam and privacy protections, and integration with Tablet PCs enabling users to send "Inked" comments to each other. Users also can view thumbnail versions of images sent during conversations, before deciding whether they want to download the full image.
The client also includes IM logging, a feature that had been provided by several third-party add-ons to Messenger in the past, and which Microsoft has begun deploying in connection with Messenger versions on other platforms, like the Mac.
This is Microsoft's latest play for dominance in the free, public IM market -- which could foreseeably widen its platform on which to launch advanced, paid services. It's already moving in that direction, with integrated telephony, which requires users to pay per-minute rates. And while Microsoft has said that won't launch any new features that require users to sign-up for its MSN 8 service, there's no reason why Microsoft can't deploy paid games or other services through Launch Site.
Already, the company said it's seeing unprecedented demand for the client, claiming more than 2 million leaked downloads of an early, private beta version. The company also said its IM network surpassed 100 million active users worldwide earlier this year.
"If the momentum for MSN and MSN Messenger, as well as the immense buzz that's building around the new version, are any indication, MSN Messenger 6 is well on its way to becoming a global phenomenon," Mehdi said.
Meanwhile, Yahoo! and AOL are each working on new services that ride atop of their IM networks. Yahoo! recently struck deals with online conferencing player WebExand software development tools powerhouse BEA Systemsfor IM integration targeting enterprise customers. In addition to recently having begun charging for Expressions, AOL is looking at new, paid services that would leverage its AIM network, such as an online dating offering.
Like Microsoft, AOL also is looking at ways to broaden its IM reach. For several months, the company has been moving to link its AIM network with ICQ, the IM network popular in Europe that it also operates. Such an effort could help the company keep its dominance in public instant messaging with a large, cohesive network of consumers all using compatible software. Earlier this month, the company reached network compatibility with the latest public alpha build of ICQ Lite.
Also earlier this month, the Internet giant began testing a new version of AIM that offers encrypted conversations to users of personal certificates. The company plans to sell certification services to businesses as part of its enterprise IM initiative.
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.