Yahoo, disconcertingly unable to develop a popular social networking site, will try to accentuate the social networking capabilities of Yahoo Messenger when it releases on Tuesday a beta upgrade of this widely used instant messaging service.
Among its new features, Yahoo Messenger 9.0 will allow people to invite friends to watch videos or flip through photo albums in real time, sharing those activities as if they were sitting side by side in one's living room.
Made possible by what Yahoo calls an "in-line media player," this feature is one of several new ones designed to boost interactions among Messenger users.
Another such feature is a redesigned "friends" list that provides more space for each contact entry and makes it easier to establish an IM, voice or SMS link with another user.
Now the question is whether Yahoo plans to leverage the more than 94 million people who use Messenger and build a social network around that base, giving the company, finally, an answer to MySpace and Facebook.
While she wouldn't provide a direct answer to this question, Sabrina Ellis, vice president of Yahoo Messenger, acknowledged that the service has an inherent social networking component.
"In some ways, if you look at it, Yahoo Messenger is a social network in that people have actually defined who their friends are and these are people they communicate with," Ellis said.
The new features, such as the ability to share and watch videos virtually together, will let people deepen their interactions on Yahoo Messenger beyond what has been possible so far, she said.
"These elements will really help people develop relationships and expand some of their friendships," Ellis said.
According to comScore, last month Yahoo Messenger had 94.3 million unique users, up almost 30 percent from September 2006 and second worldwide to Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger with almost 227 million.
Still, Yahoo hasn't been able to find its groove in social networking. It recently announced it will phase out its social networking site Yahoo 360 and migrate its features and content to a "universal profile system" that will more closely tie Yahoo's various online services together.
Asked how Yahoo Messenger will fit within this integrated, centralized platform, Ellis said the IM service will be part of that effort, along with Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Answers and other services.
"We're committed to making sure that all of our users can benefit from all different Yahoo services," she said.
Other new features in the beta version of Yahoo Messenger 9.0 include the following:
-- The ability to transfer an unlimited number of files of of up to 2GB in size each
-- Call forwarding, to send calls from Yahoo Messenger to a mobile phone or landline as a voicemail
-- The ability to share photo sets from Yahoo's Flickr service in real time