April 25, 2004 3:00 PM PDT

Yahoo gives Messenger an 'all new' look

Yahoo on Monday is expected to launch a makeover of its popular instant-messaging software, just days after similar moves by rivals America Online and Microsoft.

Called "The All New Yahoo Messenger," the upgrade is one of the software's most dramatic makeovers to date. Cosmetically, the service will have a new look and feel that focuses more on graphics and animation, the company said. The service also has folded in features pulled from other areas of Yahoo's Web site, such as photo sharing, the address book, user-to-user video games, Internet radio from its Launch subsidiary, and online search results.

"Yahoo Messenger is a hub for communications services," Lisa Pollock Mann, Yahoo Messenger's senior director, said in an interview Friday. "It's important that those services are core and relevant."

The software looks similar to MSN Messenger in its ability to display digital photos or play a round of checkers in the messenger chat window, for instance. However, Yahoo added the option of displaying avatars, which are cartoon images that people can customize with different appearances, outfits and backgrounds to reflect their moods. Avatars have been popular in Asia, but have yet to gain broad adoption in the United States.

Yahoo Messenger also expanded familiar perks. The company increased its arsenal of animated "smiley" emoticons, adding 13 new faces to its existing 35 choices. The service also still offers PC voice calling, PC-to-mobile phone text messaging, a Web cam and news updates.

The new Yahoo Messenger is launching not long after competitors Microsoft and AOL updated their own IM clients with more bells and whistles. Microsoft last week introduced a subscription-based online game service for MSN Messenger, while AOL launched a new version of its ICQ instant messenger that offers a more personalized touch.

The continual feature updates are not surprising, given the popularity and competition among consumer IM clients. Instant messaging has become one of the most popular activities among Internet users, letting them exchange text messages in real time.

Because the major IM networks produced by AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo are proprietary, IM users typically have multiple clients running on their desktops. The companies have stated their desire to eventually interoperate, but no plans are on the horizon.

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