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Hot on the Web

Google, IM and Googlanoia

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 13, 2006
(Issue 2402, The Best Money Can Buy)

Google's entry into the instant messenger market has the media in a tizzy. Everyone is pointing to the still-not-officially-released Gmail webmail service as an example of what Google can do to any market.

And it's true that Gmail – still officially in beta as this is written in mid-December – did pretty radically shake up the advertising-supported webmail market. When Google announced that Gmail would have a full gigabyte of storage – compared to the 10-20 Mb then common – it forced Yahoo, Hotmail and Netscape to up their storage limits on their free accounts, too.

Gmail now offers 2.5 Gb of storage, with Hotmail now at 250Mb, Yahoo at a full gig, and Netscape at 250 Mb. Clearly, in the last 18 months, the whole advertiser-driven webmail market has undergone radical transformation.

So will Google Talk be as influential in the IM market?

A different model, different challenges

It doesn't seem likely.

For one, the storage limits on free webmail accounts had not changed in about five years before Gmail came along. Originally implemented based on storage costs in the mid- to late 1990s, they had not been revised upward to reflect the exponentially cheaper prices on storage devices – i.e., hard drives, which had dropped in price per megabyte by a factor of about 90 percent.

So while Yahoo, Hotmail and Netscape were still charging advertisers the same rate to display their ads to users of their free webmail services, their own costs had plummeted. Even if these were not hugely profitable ventures, Google recognized that it could gain market traction without appreciably increasing its overhead above what its competitors faced.

Instant messenging doesn't have any artificial limits on it like the webmail storage limits.

The biggest impediment to broader acceptance of IM is the lack of a universal standard. There is no HTML or TCP/IP protocol for instant messengers – no single standard used by all IM clients.

Instead, Yahoo and MSN and AOL/Netscape each have their own, as does the independent ICQ. Since Google can't force any of them to let it use their protocol, it's ability to radically alter the IM landscape is much more limited that in the webmail example.

Greater cooperation

Although Google can't do anything on the technical side to change things up in IM the way Gmail did, the mere fact that Google is launching Google Talk seems to have given a bit of a sense of urgency to efforts among AOL, MSN and Yahoo to create a cross-platform compatibility.

AOL has been in talks with MSN and Google about a joint marketing campaign; Google is currently the default AOL search engine, so there are all kinds of issues to resolve there. And the truth is, AOL, MSN and Yahoo all have tens of millions of users already – none has any real incentive to play nicely with the others. Each has a large enough user base to turn a nice profit from their IM division – assuming they're run competently. (Like webmail, IM clients generally feature ads in their panel to pay for the servers, research, etc.)

For its part, Google is using the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), which is a nonproprietary standard. Still, Google Talk runs off of Google servers – even if other services use XMPP, unless they link their servers and databases, you'll need two accounts to talk to friends on the other XMPP-based service.

Real interoperability

If it's just interoperability you want – to be able to chat with your family, friends or associates no matter if they're on AOL, MSN or Yahoo – you can already do that.

The Trillian chat client offers full interoperability in one panel. As long as you have an AOL/Netscape, MSN, ICQ and Yahoo IM account – and they're all free for the asking – you can chat with any of your friends no matter their IM sevice. Trillian even supports Internet Relay Chat, an older but still active standard.

Whether Trillian will add Google Talk support remains to be seen.

As for Google Talk, the early beta versions seem to be trying to be more than simply an instant messenger. It is integrated with Gmail (although so are Yahoo, AOL/Netscape and MSN's IM clients), and apparently has some sort of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) integration as well.

VoIP is supposedly one of those can't-miss "next big things," and news reports indicate everyone is busy trying to integrate their IM client with VoIP.

Then again, VoIP may turn out to be the next voice recognition technology – an application easily enough accomplished, but one that never caught on with the public.