Russian online major Group is relaunching the messaging client ICQ in a bid to capitalise on an increased interest in videoconferencing services amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown. Group has owned ICQ since 2010 and has been developing another similar service, TamTam, since 2017. However, in Russia, both services have been lagging behind more popular WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram. Group has released a new version of ICQ, bluntly dubbed ICQ New, which has been available in app stores since April 6 and can be installed as an update of previous ICQ versions, Kommersant reported.

However, unlike the previous versions, ICQ New has an artificial intelligence component that can help provide quick replies and convert voice messages into text. A platform for creating bots is also available.

Meanwhile, to cater to the needs of companies whose employees are working remotely under the lockdown regime, ICQ New has a feature for group calls. Up to 30 people could take part in audio and video calls.

While the name ICQ derives from the English phrase "I Seek You," the messenger was originally developed by the Israeli firm Mirabilis back in 1996. In 1998, AOL bought the service and sold it to Group in 2010 in a $187.5mn deal.

By then, the messaging client's popularity had declined from its early 2000s peak of more than 100mn users to around 42mn users. This decline has continued ever since, and currently, according to Group, ICQ has about 11mn monthly users.

Still, the Russian online major's interest in the instant messaging app segment has not subsided, and, in 2017, it launched another similar app, TamTam.

"TamTam is a more traditional messaging app that is cantered not only on emotional values, but also on rational ones, such as speed, convenience, pragmatism and broad functionality," Group general director Boris Dobrodeyev explained the idea of the app at the time of launch.

Now, Group plans to develop ICQ New and TamTam simultaneously.

At this point, it is hard to say if the relaunch of ICQ will help the messaging app to seriously compete with most popular apps of the same kind.

According to audience measuring firm Mediascope, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging service in Russia, with a monthly audience of 68mn people in January 2020, followed by Viber with 34mn and Telegram with 22mn. Only 439,000 people of 11mn registered users actually used ICQ, while for TamTam, the number was even lower, at 295,000.

Experts say that the moment for relaunching ICQ is good, as demand for messaging services offering video and audio group call options is on the rise due to the coronavirus lockdown.

According to App Annie, in just one week in mid-March, over 62mn people downloaded various messaging apps. That was nearly twice as many as the weekly average registered in 2019. The number of users of popular video conferencing service Zoom jumped from 10mn in December to 200mn in March.

In addition, one of ICQ New's main competitors, Telegram, is facing litigations in the United States over plans to launch a cryptocurrency, TON.

But there are factors playing against Group as well. One of them is the likelihood that ICQ New and TamTam will be competing with each other.

German Klimenko, former advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin on internet-related issues, was quoted as saying by Kommersant that the two messaging apps hardly differ from each other, targeting basically the same users.

"They need to either combine their users in one product and focus on it, or offer different products based on their interests," he said.

Meanwhile, regardless of user numbers, a messaging app could be successfully monetised.

"Monetisation options abound," Maria Sukhanova, an analyst at BCS Global Markets, told Kommersant. "It could be ads or extra paid content, such as stickers. But in any case, the relaunch of ICQ is unlikely to become a major revenue source for the entire company."


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