AOL quietly linking AIM, ICQ

It is now possible for many to use Instant Messenger to communicate with ICQ users -- creating a potential 138 million member network.

America Online Inc. may be further along in the integration of its two, different, instant messaging systems -- AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ -- than it has been letting on.

Though AOL (aol) hasn't yet publicized the capability, it now is possible for many users of ICQ, which AOL purchased two years ago, to sign on to AOL Instant Messenger and communicate with other ICQ users. The compatibility suggests that AOL may be on its way toward creating a worldwide instant messaging system with 138 million potential users.

AOL's dominance of instant messaging technology, the kind of real-time e-mail that also lets users know when others are online, has emerged as a major concern of regulators scrutinizing the company's planned merger with Time Warner Inc. (twx). Competitors to Instant Messenger, such as Microsoft Corp. (msft) and Yahoo! Inc. (yhoo), have been pressing the Federal Communications Commission to force AOL to make its services compatible with competitors'. Numerous systems are already interoperable. The FCC is considering forcing AOL to open up once it combines its system with ICQ or within six months of the merger, whichever comes first.

AOL, which has an interest in remaining closed for as long as possible, has told regulators it isn't ready to open Instant Messenger to competitors and so far hasn't provided a time frame for when it would be ready. AOL argues that it wants to make its service work with competitors', but that it is concerned how that may affect the security and privacy of its users. AOL is working with an industry group to create a standard way for different instant messaging services to communicate.

When asked, AOL acknowledged that an ICQ user can now log on to AOL Instant Messenger, which is known by the acronym AIM. The spokeswoman said the capability is a byproduct of a test being conducted by engineers as it explores how to make its systems interoperate with others. The feature doesn't work in the other direction, allowing an AOL user to log on to ICQ.

"Rest assured, when the industry arrives at interoperability standards that protect consumers' privacy and security, ICQ along with all the other instant messaging services will be able to interoperate with AIM," said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. "We would not have ICQ interoperating with AIM ahead of any other instant messaging service."

Still, AOL's quiet changes have caught the eye of competitors, which believe it strengthens their argument in favor of immediately opening up AOL's instant messaging system. Brian Park, senior producer of instant messaging at Yahoo, said that if AOL makes its two services work together more fully, "it opens the door for us to argue for interoperability."

AOL created Instant Messenger 11 years ago with its well-known "buddy list," the feature that lets users know when somebody on their list is online. Today, AIM has 65.5 million registered users. ICQ, created by an Israeli company, is targeted at a more technically oriented audience, including people who build more sophisticated online chat areas. With 73 million registered users, it is the largest instant messaging service in the world. Each on its own is more than three times the size of the closest competitor.

Until recently, each AOL system was completely separate. But starting in April, some ICQ users suddenly found themselves able to communicate using AOL Instant Messenger, which is available as a free download on the Web as well as within the AOL service. The feature isn't promoted anywhere on ICQ or AOL.

A person familiar with AOL's situation says the company is taking some steps internally to make AIM and ICQ interoperable, but that it faces challenges meshing the cultures of the two companies and also with the kind of users signed onto each system. ICQ users tend to use a lot of extra features such as one that allows them to filter their incoming messages with an "authentication" device. AIM users tend to be less savvy and use different features, this person said.

Some rivals speculate that AOL's ultimate goal isn't interoperability between the two services, but rather to migrate ICQ users to AOL's instant messaging service.

"They're trying to push folks away from ICQ and consolidate and further build their monopoly in the AOL Instant Messenger product," said Bill Kirkner, chief technology officer at Prodigy Communications Corp., an instant messaging competitor.

The AOL spokeswoman responded: "These are two very unique communities, and we plan to keep them separate."