ICQ is set to make a societal debut Thursday with the launch of a new social networking service that integrates with its instant messaging platform, allowing users to meet and greet in real time.
The ICQ online community and chat service, owned by America Online, is the first to offer social networking services on an IM platform, the company says.
Dubbed ICQ Universe, the new service banks on the growing popularity of social networking with hopes of leveraging the ICQ network's 175 million subscribers.
"To a certain extent ICQ was already a social network so it's not like we had to start from scratch ... this is a natural extension for us," says ICQ General Manager Orey Gilliam.
Beginning Thursday, ICQ IM users will be invited to join the Universe when they log on. The new service allows users to post personal profiles and photos, view their network of contacts, search for new contacts, and view when other members are online.
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While other networking sites like Friendster.com also offer features like profiles and message boards, the advantage of ICQ Universe is its IM integration, according to Ronen Arad, ICQ's director of product management.
Because IM offers the ability to discern the presence of users--whether they are available and online--ICQ Universe users can tell when their friends are logged on, and even send them offline messages. They can also receive alerts on their desktops when invitations to join the service are accepted or declined, and even set up birthday reminders.
"Adding IM to social networking is a very nice extra feature. I think it will up the bar for social networking," says David Ferris, president of Ferris Research.
ICQ Universe members can IM anyone in the Universe, including new friends they locate through ICQ's search function, which allows users to query by first or last name, occupation, area, age, and gender among other categories.
While Gilliam says that ICQ Universe isn't tailored toward online dating or business networking, members can certainly use the service to perform these functions--an aspect that could potentially pit ICQ Universe against more narrowly-focused networking sites.
The service is free and by invitation only. However, non-ICQ users can join by receiving an invite from someone in the ICQ Universe, or by hanging around the virtual "lobby" as guest members, where they can be recruited to join.
The guests are highlighted on users' interfaces, offering a glimpse of potential friends on the other side of the door. Members can also elect what kind of guests they want highlighted on their view, indicating age or profession, for example.
While popular networking sites like Friendster have grabbed headlines with its fast-growing user base, ICQ Universe is aiming to outpace it.
ICQ's IM service has over 4.3 million unique U.S. users, according to the latest figures from comScore Media Metrix. These users will soon be invited to join the Universe.
What's more, ICQ messenger is now interoperable with AOL's flagship AOL Instant Messenger service, allowing users of both services to initiate conversations with each other. AIM has 23 million unique U.S. users, according to comScore.
AIM users can also join the service, post profiles and browse and read other member's profiles but they must download the ICQ Lite application to activate the IM capability.
With ICQ messenger's already strong user base and connection to the AIM community, Gilliam hopes that ICQ Universe will become a major player in the market.
But ICQ still has a relatively low profile, according to Ferris. ICQ's IM user numbers pale in comparison to those of Microsoft's MSN service and Yahoo's Messenger, he says, adding that they could easily launch their own social networks or partner with existing players.
"One of ICQ's problems is marketing because they have not been very visible in the past," he says.
However, Gilliam thinks that ICQ users are a prime audience for the service. ICQ characterizes its users as young and adventurous, with a solid interest in gaming. The company could soon bank on these attributes to launch new ICQ Universe paid services, according to Gilliam.
"We are always toying with the potential of premium services," he says.
"This is the first phase of the Universe. We'll see what users have to say about the service and then we'll improve it," Gilliam says.