ICQ Slims Down for 4.0 Release

ICQ is promising to innovate its way back to the top of the nascent world of instant messaging. Today marks the release of ICQ 4.0, ICQ's next generation instant messaging client. ICQ is breaking from the past by shedding the software's bloated image in favor of a new open source plug-in architecture.

In addition to putting ICQ on a diet, the overall user interface has been streamlined and refreshed. Other improvements brought by the 4.0 milestone tackle portability and personalization.

To accomplish its goal of redefining ICQ, the company is seeking to crystallize the thinking of developers around a new concept called "ICQ Xtraz." ICQ Xtraz are new features and services that users can select without having to download client updates or install additional components. Xtraz are built on top of an open application programming interface (API) and submitted to ICQ for approval prior to being offered to customers.

Thus far, the API has only been available to developers including Oberon Media and Lavalife - not end users.  This will change, however; in an interview with BetaNews, an ICQ spokesperson indicated that the API will soon be available to everyone.

The ICQ 4.0 client hides Xtraz by way of a collapsible menu that displays several default selections, as well as a user's most commonly requested features. Preferences are recorded locally within an XML document. These preferences do not carry over to other access points, but the services are still available should a user request them.

ICQ users can send shortcuts to one another to participate in a new feature. To make this happen in real time, Flash and DHTML fuse together to deliver Xtraz to users without adding any weight to the client. Xtraz are hosted exclusively on ICQ's servers and updated globally so that every ICQ user is always using the latest feature.

The design of the Xtraz platform -- included with ICQ Lite -- calls into question the viability of ICQ Pro. For the time being, ICQ will continue to ship its feature-rich Pro distribution, but the stripped-down ICQ Light is now capable of added functionality without actually downloading extra bits.

Other major features making their debut with ICQ 4.0 include "Follow Me" and "ICQ Devils." Like AOL Instant Messenger -- ICQ's corporate brethren -- Follow Me permits ICQ messages to be sent to user's cell phones if they are away from the PC. To curtail the influx of SMS messages, cell phone users can choose to turn the option off remotely.

ICQ Devils add a touch of personalization to the client. Comparative to AIM's Buddy Icon, a Devil personalizes the profiles of ICQ users and appears within new "Super Message" boxes and inside all incoming message notifications. ICQ's unique twist is the Devil's ability to respond to emotions; if a user sends a contact a smile, the ICQ Devil will return the favor and flash a wicked smile.

Photos uploaded as Devils can be manipulated with some rudimentary photo editing tools embedded in the client.

ICQ also launched its new ICQ Universe social networking service on the heels of the 4.0 release. One of the unannounced goals of ICQ 4.0 is to bridge the gap between the company's Web properties and the client software.

In March, a limited beta of the ICQ client was previewed by 30,000 customers outside of the United States, where ICQ usage remains strong. These same users had simultaneous access to ICQ Universe.

"ICQ definitely has quite a lead in a number of overseas markets – I think a main driver is to push forth its community and cater to the demand for social networking,"  Genelle Hung, a Market Analyst with the Radicati Group told BetaNews. "There is a great deal more that ICQ users can now do and share with friends, which is the trend with IM users these days. Music, gaming, file-sharing – all these are more must-haves than before, on top of just personalized instant messaging."

Mirabilis, the original creator of ICQ, was founded in 1996 and kick started the real time communications craze. AOL purchased Mirabilis in 1998 in an effort to dominate the IM marketplace. Since that time, the company has admittedly fallen off the wagon from its position as the market innovator. "We are bringing the innovation back to ICQ," said Orey Gilliam, general manager for the ICQ product group.

"ICQ is definitely innovating more now to make a bit of a come-back – not that it is lacking in users or growth, but it seems to have sat back on its laurels a little, being the first to market and all. However, it has realized the competition is picking up steam, and it has to keep on innovating and gearing to user demand to ensure continued loyalty and growth," remarked Radicati's Hung.

With 490 million people expected to use IM clients in 2004 and 642 million come 2005, ICQ and its competition have no shortage of potential customers to canvass with their wares.

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