DST, Prof-Media Bid for ICQ

Two Russian companies, Digital Sky Technologies and Prof-Media, have made binding offers for the instant messaging platform ICQ, as has China's Tencent.

Vedomosti learned from a manager at one of the deal's organizers that AOL was collecting binding offers to purchase ICQ. The information was confirmed by sources close to Vladimir Potanin's Prof-Media and to DST, whose shareholders include Yury Milner, Grigory Finger and Alisher Usmanov.

A source close to the shareholders of one of the Russian bidders said Chinese telecoms firm Tencent had made an offer, and a manager at one of the deal's organizers also had heard of its interest.

The sources contacted for this article did not know when the results of the tender would be known.

Spokespeople for DST and Prof-Media declined comment, while AOL and Tencent did not respond to Vedomosti's requests for comment.

Time Warner spun off AOL in December, and the messaging company began selling its noncore assets. Among them was ICQ, which AOL valued at $300 million.

Prof-Media made an offer of about $120 million, one of the bidders said, adding that DST's offer was higher. Previously, The Wall Street Journal had reported that DST might offer $200 million to $250 million for ICQ, citing a source close to possible participants in the deal.

ICQ's clients could come in handy for Mail.ru and search portal Rambler, which are controlled by DST and Prof-Media, respectively, sources close to the companies said. Mail.ru has a similar project, Agent@Mail.ru, with a monthly audience of about 12 million users. ICQ is its main competitor in Russia.

Rambler and ICQ became partners in 2005, releasing a joint Russian-language version of the program, Rambler ICQ, which has about 5 million users. ICQ also has a similar arrangement with Yandex, which has 4 million users.

Tencent is in a similar situation, supporting one of the most popular Internet messaging programs in China, QQ.

Russian speakers comprise the largest single bloc of ICQ users, with 44 percent, or about 18.5 million of the company's 42 million clients, ICQ managing director Eliav Moshe said in March.

AOL also invited several other Russian companies to bid, including the major mobile operators and Yandex, but they declined, sources close to the deal's organizers and those companies told Vedomosti.

ICQ's main revenue comes from banner ads and contextual advertising based on search results. AOL does not disclose ICQ's financial results, but Rambler's revenue from ads in ICQ was about $6 million in 2008, with a "similar result" in 2009, a source close to Rambler said.

Mobile TeleSystems president Mikhail Shamolin told Vedomosti in a recent interview that his company had not seen any business possibilities in such projects, "whether ICQ or otherwise."

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