North American readers might find it hard to believe, but a number of companies are currently involved in a bidding war over the ICQ instant messaging division of AOL. The service died off for the most part many years ago in North America, but the service still sports over 33 million users worldwide, and is the number 1 provider in Russia with over 8.3 million IM’ers.
The list of interested companies include Google, DST, and Nasper. Google’s interest in ICQ is most likely because of the Russian connection. This is a market where they have struggled somewhat to gain a foothold, and buying into an existing customer base is an easy way to make up some market share.
Instant messaging is a great way to stay in touch, but anybody who uses it extensively knows the pain of having friends spread out over different services. Ever install a bulky and bloated IM client for just one friend? Or wished you could instant message all your groupies without running 5 different chat clients in the system tray? Well IM providers and a handful of crafty open source programmers have listened to our cries. Free browser-based alternatives exist for all the major platforms, and all in one desktop clients are finally able to bring the competing services together.
And is there any wonder? Time Warner has been in talks with both Microsoft and Yahoo about selling off its AOL unit through out this year, but both companies have been much more interested in each other than the crumbled remains of AOL. Time Warner has showed a renewed interest in a deal and Microsoft and Yahoo continue to listen, but neither company appeared to be especially interested.
The NYTimes.com quotes Richard Greenfield, an analyst who covers Time Warner for Pali Capital, “I don’t see why anyone would make a move now with all the pieces on the chess board where they are,” he said. He adds that Time Warner was in a bad spot because the value of AOL was declining. (Doesn’t everyone want dialup?) Its main business is now selling graphical display ads and that is under pricing pressure. Greenfield also says its brand has a “toxic” connotation with consumers. The company does not even use the AOL name when it starts new web sites.
From its days as the evil empire of dialup companies, they earned the nickname ‘AOHell’. The company seemed to lack firm direction, buying various companies with no obvious connection to their business and often ruining them in the process. Perhaps the most famous of these is ICQ. The most popular IM program of the time was turned into bloatware, which quickly sank out of sight. Don’t even get me started on Netscape. AOL entered the portal ring way late and had already bled dialup users seeking the freedom of the internet compared to AOL’s own internal version of it. The company has been aimless and with its almost necrotic touch, is it any wonder consumers find the brand toxic?