AOL unveils a slim, trim ICQ

If size matters, someone forgot to tell America Online Inc.'s ICQ instant messaging division. This week it is releasing ICQ Lite, a condensed version of its popular IM program with uncharacteristically few features.

ICQ Lite has only 14 core features, a fraction of the 40 functions in ICQ 2002. The newest release bucks the bigger-is-better trend among IM competitors. Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., for example, have been fattening their instant messenger clients with multimedia and enhanced communications add-ons upon each new release.

The short list of ICQ Lite's just-the-basics features includes same-time text messaging, the ability to send and receive text messages on mobile phones, file transfer functions, and access to ICQ's user directory for finding people of like interests. In addition, the program saps less of your system memory when it runs.

"We have put our most popular features in a smaller and simpler package," says Ronen Arad, ICQ product manager. ICQ Lite will not replace full versions like the company's latest, ICQ 2002a. Instead, ICQ Lite is aimed at users unfamiliar with instant messaging. Arad says the small size of the ICQ Lite program will also appeal to advanced ICQ users who appreciate software that doesn't tap too much of a PC's resources.

New Filter Options

ICQ Lite brings some new features to the table, as well. You can now choose to filter out unsolicited messages with an optional ICQ chat filter. And if an inappropriate message sneaks through, you can report the chat spammer to ICQ administrators who will consider adding repeat offenders to a list of users who may be filtered.

The smaller version also adds a typing indicator, which alerts you when the other person is typing. It also supports so-called natural language queries that let you cross-reference the ICQ user directory as easily as typing "poodle owners living in Milwaukee."

Only Windows systems can run ICQ Lite. You can run both the Lite version and the full ICQ on the same PC without conflict. ICQ Lite will be introduced first in English with additional language support following soon, Arad says.

ICQ Bucks Big Trend

Consistent with the feature reductions, ICQ has trimmed the file size for ICQ Lite to 1.7MB, down from 3.9MB for the full version. The leaner ICQ Lite drains only about 5MB of your PC's system resources when it runs, in contrast to the full version's 15MB requirement, ICQ says.

The introduction of a leaner ICQ runs contrary to recent offerings from chat competitors Microsoft and Yahoo. In August, for instance, Yahoo introduced Webcam support for Yahoo Messenger. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been building bridges into MSN Messenger that connect to its .Net platform for e-commerce and for collaboration tools like whiteboards.

Analysts say all of the competitors in this niche are trying to distinguish their messaging applications with more features.

A Different Approach

ICQ is clearly taking a different tack, says Michael Gartenberg, a research director at Jupiter Research. Instead of becoming more complicated, ICQ is taking the "Zen approach of simplicity," he says. By keeping things uncomplicated, ICQ is hoping that new users will find ICQ Lite more approachable, he says.

However, it may take more than Zen-like ease of use for ICQ to keep up with the messaging behemoths within the United States. The top spot currently belongs to AOL's AIM service. (AOL and ICQ share the same parent company, AOL Time Warner.) In second place is MSN Messenger, with Yahoo in third, according to the most recent data available from Jupiter.

Those numbers indicate that ICQ is struggling. In 2001 ICQ saw a 13 percent decrease in the number of users of its instant messaging service, from about 9 million to 8 million. However, ICQ instant messaging software remains very popular in Europe and elsewhere outside the United States.

Still, much is at stake in the U.S. chat market, where 48 percent of Internet users have yet to begin swapping instant missives, Gartenberg says. Another quickly growing market for instant messaging is behind company firewalls, where employees are increasingly turning to instant messaging as a business communication tool.

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