Facebook Investor DST May Try To Corner Russian IM Market By Acquring AOL’s ICQ

Now that AOL (NYSE: AOL) CEO Tim Armstrong has said the most he’ll do with MapQuest is an operational partnership, not a sale, it looks like instant messaging service ICQ could be at the top of the sell list — and, according to multiple reports, Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies (DST) is interested. It makes sense given that ICQ, which has 42 million users globally, is the leading IM service in Russia, credited with more than 50 percent of the market, and DST already controls the second-leading one through its majority stake of Mail.ru.

The first report by Russian-language newspaper Vedomosti (via Quintura) put the price at $200 million -$250 million. WSJ later put the price at a wider range of $200 million and $300 million — and once again raises the idea that social net Bebo, acquired by the previous regime for $850 million, is also for sale.

During an investor Q&A last week, Armstrong used the ill-fated People Networks merging AIM and Bebo as an example of how the company’s communications products and services had been damaged. ICQ was part of that effort, which Armstrong quickly unwound after his arrival. Bebo is now part of AOL Ventures.

Armstrong also said last week he wants to sell assets that don’t fit with AOL’s new content, communications and advertising focus. He’s already planning to cut back AOL’s direct international activities in some countries in favor of partnerships. Acquired by AOL with Israeli parent company Mirabilis in 1998 for $287 million (plus earnouts up to $120 million), ICQ was among the pioneers in real-time internet communications. But the decision to keep ICQ and AIM as separate brands wound up making ICQ more popular outside the U.S. — and more vulnerable.

For a little perspective, DST bought 1.96 percent of Facebook for $200 million in May. At the time, DST partner Alexander Tamas explained that they prefer to buy small stakes in big companies rather than a big stake in a small company. But DST also holds large stakes in companies; it’s currently in the midst of combining gaming Astrum Online Entertainment with Mail.ru.