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IM Giants Duke it Out on Wireless

The battle for dominance in the instant messaging space continues expanding into the wireless arena, as the three leaders in desktop IM ink new alliances that seek to land them mobile users.

Last week, Yahoo! said it had signed Cingular Wireless in the U.S. as its second partner for PC-initiated messaging from the Yahoo! Instant Messenger to SMS-enabled mobile phones. (The Yahoo! IM client also can receive SMSes once it's begun a conversation with a mobile user.)

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! has been working with Cingular co-parent SBC Communications on a number of initiatives, including the portal's co-branded DSL service and online yellow pages listings.

In addition to Cingular, Yahoo! has supported SMS messaging to and from AT&T Wireless subscribers since September. Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, speaking at the company's analyst day last week, also said the Web portal is close to a deal with a third domestic mobile operator.

Yang added that the company plans to promote its instant messaging offerings by tying them more closely into other mobile products, such as wireless alerts and ringtones. (Last year, the portal acquired a stake in Sonera Zed, a major European provider of ringtones and other mobile add-ons.)

"Soon, we think we'll have a tremendous footprint with wireless carriers, nationwide," Yang said. "Wireless messaging has tremendous adoption, especially outside the U.S., and these services are expected to increase in usage. And, as we couple these with other services, like ringtones, we're going to do it better and better."

Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless has about 22 million subscribers, while Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless has about 21 million.

In addition to supporting IM-to-SMS functionality on both carriers' services, Yahoo! also has agreements to embed its WAP client on the mobile portals of Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless, and also offers an SMS-based implementation on AT&T Wireless. (In the SMS version, logging in, logging off, blocking users and requesting Friends Lists are handled by sending messages to SMS shortcodes.)

New Partners for AOL's ICQ, and New Plans for AIM

Meanwhile, this week at 3GSM, Dulles, Va.-based America Online spoke about the progress of several old integration deals between its chiefly-European IM network, ICQ, and major wireless carriers, as well as highlighting several previously unannounced arrangements.

Like America Online's AIM service and Yahoo!'s SMS-based system, the ICQ service has long offered a means for mobile phone users to log onto the service and send messages to buddies using SMS.

ICQ also supports the sending of messages from an ICQ PC user to an SMS-enabled phone -- a feature that doesn't require that recipients be ICQ users to receive and respond to the messages -- as well as a WAP interface.

InstantMessagingPlanet reported last January that Canada's Rogers AT&T Wireless had introduced support for ICQ via SMS. Shortly thereafter, Taiwan's FarEasTone began offering ICQ via SMS and WAP, making it the first Chinese-language provider of ICQ wireless messaging service in the country.

At about the same time, ICQ struck an agreement with Cellcom, the leading wireless operator in Israel, to provide SMS-based ICQ; since then, it's introduced a Symbian client, and has plans to add further ICQ wireless products later in the year, AOL said.

In November, Smart, the leading wireless services provider in the Philippines, agreed to support ICQ via SMS and WAP; in following months, the carrier also introduced a J2ME client.

In recent weeks, Singapore's SingTel also began offering support for ICQ under SMS and WAP, and announced plans to roll out a J2ME version in coming months, while Australia's Telstra Mobile signed on to offer SMS-based ICQ.

Last month also saw the IM network striking deals in Europe, where a version of ICQ for iMode will be supported by Germany's E-Plus and the Netherlands' KPN Mobile, each of which is the first carrier to offer iMode in their countries. KPN Mobile also has plans to roll out ICQ for its German subscribers in coming weeks.

The series of deals means that over the past 12 months, ICQ has expanded its potential reach to the more than 40 million wireless subscribers of the carriers. (However, it's unclear how many of these subscribers are already ICQ users on the PC.) AOL claims that ICQ has about 150 million users; Yahoo! doesn't break out its numbers, but said its Web portal is used by upwards of 230 million.

Additionally, AOL has a bit of room to grow in supporting its flagship AOL Instant Messenger with U.S. wireless carriers; it has deals with all the major nationwide players except for Cingular.

In addition to beefing up ICQ's presence in the wireless market, sources close to America Online also said the company is looking for new ways to increase -- and monetize -- SMS traffic, particularly through greater integration with AIM and content on the America Online service.

In December, AOL began beta-testing a new version of AIM that incorporates sending IM to Buddies' mobile phone numbers via SMS, and forwarding IMs received while offline to a mobile phone. Early last year, AOL also introduced AOL Alerts, which can send SMS messages in response to news headlines, stock movements, or other criteria.

A spokesperson for AOL last week declined to comment on specifics of its wireless messaging strategy.

"Moving forward, we're always looking for ways to expand applications that make sense from the PC to wireless world," she said.

Microsoft's Moves

While the new moves by AOL and Yahoo! further increase their foothold in wireless IM, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has been making strides of its own in the international wireless arena.

Last year, the company signed IM WAP embedding or SMS interoperability deals with KPN Mobile, Rogers AT&T Wireless, Canadian carriers Bell Mobility and TELUS, Swisscom, Belgium's Proximus, Denmark's TDC Mobile, Austria-based ONE/Connect, Norway's Telenor, and Turkey's Turkcell.

In the U.S., Microsoft has agreements with Verizon Wireless to provide its WAP-based IM client on the carrier's phones, and SMS-based IM deals with Sprint and Nextel.

This week, Microsoft also struck a deal with T-Mobile to sell phones based on the software giant's Smartphone operating system. The Deutsche Telekom unit becomes the second European carrier (after Orange) and the fourth worldwide to announce its support for the OS.

That's not only a major boost Microsoft's relatively new place in the mobile phone arena -- where it competes with entrenched U.K.-based player Symbian -- but it also could further the company's push into wireless IM. Typically, a Smartphone installation includes a special version of MSN Messenger.

Still, the Smartphone's success is far from guaranteed, since Symbian enjoys backing by the top five wireless handset manufacturers. Microsoft's Smartphone OS, meanwhile, is manufactured by Hong Kong's High Tech Computers.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

Looking to get a better handle on the wireless messaging space? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring Conference and Expo, Feb. 24 and 25 in Boston. Sessions include "Reaching Users on the Go: SMS, MMS and More" and "International IM: an SMS Overview."