Microsoft has added a voice chat facility to its MSN Messenger service, giving users free international voice calling.
MSN Messenger 3, launched today, enables free PC-to-phone telephone calls to the US and Canada from anywhere in the world. Users only pay regular ISP connection charges. Additional international, long-distance and European routes are planned.
Other features of the service include a file transfer function for sending documents or music files, and the introduction of graphic icons, called emoticons, such as a smiley face, hearts and beer mugs.
Gillian Kent, marketing director at msn.co.uk, said: "The addition of the first free PC-to-phone voice calls to the MSN Messenger Service means it is the most comprehensive instant communications service on the web."
MSN Messenger Service is available free at msn.co.uk, and users require a free MSN Passport account to use the facility, which Hotmail users already have.
Shareen Meharg, marketing communications manager for MSN UK, said the company anticipates the voice quality to be similar to a mobile phone call. "We have been testing the service, and it is pretty high quality and there is no problem with the sound quality."
MSN is working with voice over IP carrier Net2Phone in the US and Canada to provide the infrastructure for the service. The company will fund the service though selling advertising on the Messenger client.
MSN and America Online (AOL) are still locked in a battle over whether users of their rival messaging services should be able to talk to each other. AOL has consistently blocked MSN's attempts to let its users talk to AOL Instant Messenger users.
Meharg said: "We want our users to be able to communicate to any instant messaging service and we are lobbying for this to happen. MSN Messenger users can communicate with AltaVista's IM service and we would like AOL to allow this also."
Peter Crowcombe, director of corporate access and service provider networks at Infonetics Research, said the announcement is significant because it is the first time such a high-profile player has launched a voice over IP service. Nevertheless, questions surrounding the business model and quality of the service to be delivered remain.
"A lot of the quality of service tools to make sure users are satisfied with this service have not yet been put in place by carriers," said Crowcombe. "Microsoft will have to provision extra capacity and use management tools to 'ring-fence' bandwidth for this application."
The service would drive users to MSN but questions about how Microsoft will raise enough revenue to pay for the Messenger service remain, he added.
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