Kara Swisher

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Exclusive: AOL Hires Bankers to Sell Off ICQ, as Internet Service Starts to Shed Non-Core Assets

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AOL has hired a pair of New York investment bankers, Morgan Stanley (MS) and Allen & Co., to manage the sale of its ICQ instant-messaging unit.

Sources familiar with the situation said interest in buying the asset from two major non-U.S. companies prompted execs at the online service to put a process in place for a deal that will likely occur after AOL becomes an independent company in December.

AOL is set to spin itself off in less than a month from corporate owner Time Warner (TWX), and sources said selling off peripheral properties likes ICQ is part of becoming a smaller, more focused company.

Sources added that AOL now wants about $300 million for the property.

ICQ, which was once of the most explosive online communications tools, has lagged since AOL bought its popular software for $287 million in 1998, with another $120 million in earnouts for the team then. It was part of an Tel Aviv, Israel, start-up called Mirabilis.

While ICQ has about 40 million to 50 million unique monthly visitors and is the No. 1 messaging service in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Israel and other small countries, its has less traction in the U.S. than bigger rival services from Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo (YHOO) and Google (GOOG). In addition, Facebook and Twitter have also become major players in the status-update space.

AOL’s AIM service, in contrast, is quite strong, typically clocking as one of the top instant-messaging properties.

Said one source about the sale of ICQ, which is still based in Israel with about 100 employees and is moderately profitable: “AOL now has to be asking the hard questions.”

Those hard questions include massive layoffs, which BoomTown reported last week will take place soon. AOL then formally acknowledged the cuts, noting in a regulatory filing that Time Warner would take a $200 million charge for them.

Other AOL properties are also likely to be getting the once-over for sale, including its Bebo social networking site, which AOL bought for $850 million in 2008. But that is not imminent.


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