Microsoft launches new instant messenger, angering AOL in the process

By AVIVA L. BRANDT

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE (AP) _ Microsoft Corp.'s new instant messaging software has kicked off a skirmish between two of the Internet's most powerful companies.

Microsoft's MSN Messenger Service, released Thursday, will work through the Microsoft Network site, allowing message exchanges with the 40 million users of MSN Hotmail.

Messengers allow Internet users to instantly exchange messages with others on the Web, without having to go through e-mail. While common enough on the Web, few messenger programs are compatible with others.

However, one key element of Microsoft's new service is that it allows people to send messages to users of America Online Inc.'s popular AOL Instant Messenger system, a feature that won kudos from analysts but cries of anger from AOL.

"You have all these walled-off communities today where AOL users can talk to AOL users, Yahoo! users to Yahoo! users, but nobody has really bridged the gap," said Rob Bennett of Microsoft's Consumer and Commerce Group.

But an AOL spokeswoman argued that MSN Messenger wasn't really compatible with AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, because it requires that a user have both programs.

AIM users won't be notified when MSN Messenger users go online _ as they are in the AOL system _ nor will they be able to save Messenger users to their "buddy" lists, unless they sign up for MSN Messenger, pointed out spokeswoman Ann Brackbill.

The Dulles, Va.-based company is also upset that Microsoft requires AOL users to enter their AIM password in order to allow MSN Messenger to communicate with AIM users, she added.

"It raises significant and serious privacy and security issues," Brackbill said. "Its unauthorized access to the AOL namespace is akin to hacking."

Microsoft's announcement Thursday was seen by analysts as a key step in the ever-escalating battle among Internet companies to obtain Web traffic to help them sell advertisements.

By designing its messaging service to work with AOL's system, Microsoft Network will position itself to draw more users to its Web site and keep them there longer, said Emily Meehan, an analyst with The Yankee Group research firm, based in Boston.

Deanna Sanford, MSN lead product manager, said Messenger was just one of the services MSN wanted to offer its users and wasn't directed towards competing with AOL.

"I think that overall we have been competing with AOL in terms of the online space and online services and portals. But this is part of our online communication strategy for MSN," she said.

"This is just part of our continuing efforts to provide consumers with a place they can go to get information no matter where they are."