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Startups Smell Userplane Blood

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There has been no shortage of talk about the apparent demise of Userplane, the text, voice and video chat software provider that was acquired by AOL in August 2006 for around $40 million (the exact price was never disclosed).

Venturebeat ran a story on the property last May, citing sources and Userplane clients as saying the service had been “neglected if not abandoned by AOL”. Yet this morning, I exchanged some e-mails with Darin Ohlandt, General Manager of Userplane, and he responded to the rumors saying they are definitely not shutting down and will continue to offer the existing chat and IM services to third-party sites.

However, some writing on the wall suggests he may not be painting a complete picture of what is going on.

A recent thread on OnlinePersonalsWatch (which covers the online dating industry, where demand for Userplane and other similar services has always been high) suggested that the site would be deadpooled by its owner soon. A developer commented on the thread claiming he had tried to contact Userplane for weeks through e-mails, voice calls and social networks and received no response, and ultimately went to their offices only to find all doors were locked with no one in sight (Ohlandt suspects the latter may have had something to do with the move to a new office in Santa Monica). And in that very same thread, former senior developer at Userplane Nick Schneble touted his new startup TopicFox, an alternative to the service (although it seems to be offline now – the website now reads the service was discontinued over a conflict of interest with Userplane).

Meanwhile the Userplane website still lists Michael Jones as the company’s CEO. That’s remarkable, because Jones left the AOL executive team to pursue a new startup called Tsavo back in August 2008, and has since signed up as the new COO at MySpace.

A month ago, Time Warner announced that its Board of Directors has authorized management to proceed with plans for the separation of AOL from the company. This would likely result in a massive restructuring of AOL, and could have a major impact on non-proven acquisitions made in the past. Other reasons why Userplane is on deadpool alert: AOL is placing much focus on lifestreaming and chat service SocialThing, which recently spread across 75 of its properties, and then of course there’s those other instant messaging services in their portfolio (AIM and ICQ).

There are more signs. When Ted Cahall was named new president of the product group at AOL back in January 2009, his memo – which we published in full here on TechCrunch – states that Userplane would be moved into the People Networks business unit under former Bebo President Joanna Shields. But at the end of last month, Shields resigned from her position as Executive VP for People Networks and to our knowledge has not been replaced to date.

It’s not surprising that many startups with competing solutions are taking advantage of the rumors about Userplane’s impending shut-down. Toksta is the most outspoken one, having set up a special page for Userplane clients who are looking to switch to an alternative provider. Other competitors in the field who are likely paying a lot of attention to what is going to happen to Userplane include Meebo with its Community IM product and ekkoTV.

To be continued, no doubt.

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