CMGI

(CMGI)

today is launching a direct challenge to

America Online

(AOL)

in the instant-messaging business.

The company this morning is announcing that it has acquired

Activerse

, an Austin, Texas-based company that has developed an instant-messaging technology that will compete for users with

ICQ

, the popular instant-messaging system that AOL acquired last year.

The Activerse technology is "a distinctly better instant messenger," David Wetherell, CMGI's chief executive, said in an interview. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

Activerse's advantage, Wetherell said, is that its instant messenger makes it easy to provide users with pager-like information such as stock price movements. In addition, it will enable third-party companies to create applications to deliver a variety of information to computer users.

Wetherell wouldn't say what other information could be delivered but he said that the company already had in mind a particularly appealing use, or "killer app" in industry parlance, which he wouldn't disclose. "We think we will get millions of ICQ users coming over for this app," he said. Last month, AOL said 85,000 to 90,000 new registrants were logging on and signing up for ICQ every day. More than 29 million people use ICQ, it said. AOL officials couldn't be reached for comment.

Activerse technology, which relies on the Java computer language, is already used to deliver various alerts on internal company networks. A free version suitable for Internet surfers will be available within weeks, Wetherell said. "We'll have it as broadly available throughout the Internet as possible," he said.

Many companies in CMGI's stable of Internet investments will develop applications for this service, he added. CMGI is a majority shareholder or owner of more than 30 Internet companies in businesses including online communities, commerce, content and infrastructure disciplines. Among its holdings are stakes in

Lycos

(LCOS)

and

GeoCities

(GCTY)

.

Wetherell said the company will make money from advertising sales and content sold through the messenger.

Wetherell added that Bill Hawkins, who joined the company last month, is working on the Activerse strategy. Hawkins formerly was with AOL and was involved with that company's development of integrated browser and messaging technology.