MSN Messenger 3.0 is available for free download from Microsoft this week. The free instant messaging software adds voice chat, file transfer, and the capability to sign up using any email address.
Primarily, these features merely help MSN Messenger catch up with competitors like America Online's AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo Messenger and ICQ. But MSN Messenger 3.0 takes voice a step further. You can make free long distance calls or send a page to buddies who are offline.
Voice calling comes to MSN Messenger using Net2Phone technology, says Craig Beilinson, lead product manager of Microsoft's consumer group. "We're the first IM to offer free long distance to the US and Canada," Beilinson says.
ICQ also offers a discounted calling service through Net2Phone, but it's really a calling card that lets you make cheap calls from a telephone using Net2Phone's internet calling service.
At the heart of the MSN Messenger update is a simplified registration process. Rather than requiring you get Passport Hotmail accounts, MSN 3.0 lets you use your existing email name and ID, Beilinson says. "You can even use with your corporate email," he adds.
MSN Messenger 3.0 users have the option to provide phone and pager numbers. The benefit is that your buddies can automatically call or page you when they see you're offline.
Of course, no one wants to publish phone numbers to the world. MSN Messenger information remains private because only your approved buddies can access it, Beilinson says. "And each time someone adds you to a buddy list, you're sent a notification that you can refuse."
So you can call someone not in your buddy list, MSN Messenger 3.0 includes a dial pad window where you can enter a phone number, Beilinson says.
While domestic calls are free, international calls are cheaper than on a normal phone, he adds. But you pay in quality. Messenger's Internet calls lack the quality of a regular phone but, Beilinson says, they are comparable to wireless services.
New Messenger features like voice chat and file transfer already exist in Yahoo Messenger and AIM, but integrated MSN search and Hotmail notification will appeal to MSN fans. Instead of having to log in to Hotmail to check for messages, you receive pop-up notifications with the sender.
With one command, you can add people to a MSN Messenger session for multi-user chat, Beilinson says. Other IM tools require you restart the session, he adds.
Beyond indicating which of your buddies is online, Messenger 3.0 has a typing indicator so you know when another person is writing a message to you. "It keeps people from interrupting each other," Beilinson says.
ICQ, AIM and Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger offer similar internet communication tools but they still don't talk to each other. Microsoft says MSN Messenger buddies can interact with users of AltaVista, Infospace and Tribal Voice IM. Until they all get along, your best bet is to pick the one(s) that work well with your system and lets you communicate with friends and coworkers.