Yahoo updates Messenger

Yahoo Inc. is updating its Messenger program with new avatars, emoticons, and other features for fun, but it is also providing ways to conceal the frivolities and keep instant messages more businesslike when desired.

The new version, now available online, also integrates better with other Yahoo features, say Yahoo executives.

For example, Messenger users can call up and search the Yahoo address book from within the IM window. Also, the main Messenger window can split into two panes, one containing interactive games or access to the search tools, and the other containing the contact list.

Multimedia is a focus of the updated application, says Lisa Pollock Mann, senior director of Yahoo Messenger. Yahoo has added what it calls “Audibles,” which are animated figures that play recorded messages. You can drop an Audible right into an instant message.

The utility now supports a larger Web video window for Super Webcam, and features a larger viewing area, better image compression, and support for up to 20 frames per second with a broadband connection. Yahoo’s research shows that, in a given month, a quarter of its Yahoo Messenger users send or receive Webcam video messages.

The new games option allows users to play two-player games directly from the IM window. Search results can be integrated into the IM window, and the results can be shared simultaneously with several IM friends.

Another existing Yahoo feature now accessible via Messenger is LAUNCHcast Radio, an Internet radio music service. The Messenger window can display the song a user is playing as part of a status message, so Messenger correspondents can tune into each other’s music.

Go Mobile, which lets users send text messages via certain cell phones, now has presence options. Users can see whether their contacts are using Go Mobile or are at their PC.

Yahoo has added new Avatars, as well. Messenger users can already designate a customizable, animated graphic to accompany their messages; now, they can display a photo from a Yahoo gallery or provide their own. Yahoo has added 13 new emoticons to the built-in selection, as well. The company notes that two million of the messages sent monthly contain an emoticon.

Users who rely on instant messaging in business can also tone down the novelty features. For example, a user can designate an animated avatar to be pictured in a message to a friend and a static icon for communication with a business contact.

Messenger users already were able to sign in as “Invisible,” which allows them to see which buddies are online but not appear to them. The update extends that feature, allowing users to appear visible to selected buddies only, while remaining in stealth mode to the others.

As before, content tabs on the interface can be switched out, giving users the option to show only the ones they use. Interface settings are stored on local PCs, allowing different experiences at work and at home.

However, the new version is likely to be incompatible with Trillian and other third-party programs that create a composite interface for several IM products.

“We are constantly providing updates to provide the best and safest experience,” Mann says. These updates are not customarily provided to third-party vendors. She cites user privacy and safety as Yahoo’s main reasons for this policy.

“We do believe that interoperability will happen,” Mann adds. Mann says Yahoo’s IM is among its most popular features, and points to the growing popularity of messaging generally.

The company cites a study by the Radicati Group Inc. that forecasts 305 million IM users worldwide by the end of the year. Most of those are young adults — a Pew Internet & American Life Project study finds that college students are twice as likely to send instant messages in a day than other Internet users, and that 74 per cent of online teens use IM. Yahoo notes that Gartner Inc. researchers expect IM will pass e-mail as the primary online communications tool by 2005.

Rival Microsoft Corp. also recently updated its MSN Messenger. Like Yahoo’s update, Microsoft’s version 6.2 bundles access other MSN features, notably the MSN Toolbar browser add-on, and introduces a subscription gaming service.

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