ICQ Beta Presents IM Walkie-Talkie

America Online subsidiary ICQ is previewing version 5.0 of its instant messaging software, which delivers more robust communication capabilities including a walkie-talkie like function called Push2Talk and improved video messaging.

Other tidbits provided by beta testers point to the addition of new customization options and core improvements that allow for dual screen support, full screen games support and the option to use the Enter key to send messages.

These additions are intended to help ICQ butt heads with Yahoo!. According to AOL, "ICQ is much more focused on competing with Yahoo," than other competitors - especially in the international market where it remains as a strong contender with sizeable market share. ICQ is especially interested in targeting youth audiences by providing a "cool design" with "lots of bells and whistles."

That said, ICQ is ready to make some noise. ICQ's Push2Talk is a PC to PC VOIP technology that is integrated into the ICQ contact list. The feature enables users who are online to speak to one another via the Web as they would with a two-way radio. Once invoked, Push2Talk's paging dialog remains open on the desktop even while the client itself is minimized. The current beta build may not function properly when users are behind a firewall.

In recognition that not all ICQ users are immediately available sitting in front of the desktop, ICQ has cooked up a more versatile system for sending text messages. Users send messages with presence and portability in mind: A new option lets them choose whether to send messages by regular text IM, SMS to a mobile phone or PDA, or a combination of both.

ICQ has also listened to requests from users. Instead of using a combination of Tab and Enter as a substitute for clicking, messages can now be sent by pressing Enter if a setting is changed in the client's preferences and security menu.

For users who would rather be both seen and heard, ICQ video has blown through a wind of change over the previous iteration. Users can open Video IM through the Xtraz shortcut on the client's contact list and also have the full functionality embedded in the message window. New to this release, users can share views of their desktops with others and adjust video image size.

With version 5, ICQ users have more options to adjust the size, shape and color of the client itself. The product's designers have molded three new skin motifs: Classic, Retro, and Cool, as well as several new color schemes that brighten up users' skin preferences. The beta also bundles a library of redesigned Emoticons with the option to download more, an interface to upload sound schemes into ICQ, and an updated status manager that creates personalized away messages.

Some general improvements to the client are: a user interface that maintains a more professional appearance that is less "cartoon-like"; additional privacy settings and SpIM control measures borrowed from parent AOL's standard procedure such as an "Accept/Cancel" message for unknown users. However, unlike AIM, the dialog appears directly within the message window instead of as an external alert.

While the beta release is not much of a departure from ICQ's 4.0 era architecture -- which was overhauled and slimmed down when ICQ built its open source Xtras platform -- it does include several intriguing new features that may entice the Web's elite.

According to ICQ, the ICQ 5 beta client will only be available for the first 30,000 people who download it. ICQ will rely on that sampling of external testers to provide critical user feedback on its planned service and design changes.

"The 30,000-download limit resonates well with ICQ's legacy as an enthusiast, trendsetting, Internet elite product. Remember that in many ways, ICQ pioneered instant messaging as we know it, with popularity spreading by word of mouth. I think the download cap will resonate well with veteran Netters, which have helped keep ICQ vital and uncompromised, unlike some competing products, "said Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research.

The full public release of ICQ 5.0 is slated for Q1 of 2005.

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