MIAMI - America Online Inc. has given its ICQ instant messaging service a significant revamping, including the ability for developers to create plug-in applications to extend ICQ's functionality, according to a company official.
ICQ 4.0, which will be released Tuesday, features a development platform called Xtraz, which has an open API (application programming interface) for the creation, delivery and automatic update of plug-in applications developed in HTML, DHTML (Dynamic HTML) and Macromedia Inc.'s Flash, said Ronen Arad, ICQ director of product management.
Some Xtraz available at launch on Tuesday will include several games for both single and multiple users, a greeting-card sender and a feature for uploading photos. Expected later this year are video sessions, more games, maps and personal finance plug-ins.
The Xtraz applications reside on ICQ servers, allowing AOL to automatically deliver and update them without users having to do any downloads, he said. Initially, ICQ will work with partners to create Xtraz plug-in applications. It plans later on to let users develop applications and submit them to ICQ, which can make them generally available, he said. "This is pioneering in terms of its innovation," Arad said.
The introduction of an open development platform to create instant messaging applications currently is unique in the market, analysts Michael Osterman, principal of Osterman Research Inc., and Genelle Hung, of The Radicati Group Inc., said in separate interviews.
AOL expects the Xtraz platform to attract new users drawn by the new functionality and to increase revenue as ICQ and its partners monetize the new services, AOL's Arad said.
ICQ currently has 8 million active users every day on its network, and it is strongest outside the U.S., Arad said, adding that 80 percent of ICQ users aren't English speakers. With ICQ 4.0, the idea is to maintain the service's international strength and increase its position in the U.S., Arad said. "I think with this release we're positioning ourselves to create a huge marketplace here in the U.S.," he said. Since last year, users from ICQ and AOL's sister AIM instant messaging service have been able to exchange messages, which gives ICQ access to the AIM installed base.
Other enhancements in ICQ 4.0 include a revamped user interface, called Super Message, which consolidates operations into a single window, simplifying the user experience; a feature called Follow Me that lets users forward their ICQ messages to a cell phone; and integration with the ICQ Universe social networking service launched in March.
"This is a very significant upgrade. It exceeded my expectations," Radicati's Hung said. "The interface looks wonderful. Everything is tightly integrated and easy to use. They have done a lot of research into what users want."
"The Xtraz platform is pretty unique. Through it, they're making ICQ more of a framework for application development," Osterman said.
ICQ 4.0 will be available for a free download starting Tuesday at http://www.icq.com in its English-language version. Versions in German, Portuguese, Spanish and traditional and simplified Chinese will follow soon after, Arad said. Xtraz applications are also free for end users, Arad said.
Existing features carrying over into ICQ 4.0 include file transfer capabilities and the ability to make Internet-based phone calls.