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Google does IM

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 5, 2007
(Issue 2540, The Biggest Loser)

The last year and a half or so, Google has become the new high tech villain, getting stuck with the black hat that Microsoft used to wear.

Having grown to utterly dominate online searches – not only by having the leading search engine site, but also by selling many businesses its search tools for their online databases – Google is increasingly seen as a greedy monopoly, a danger to free competition.

And yet, two of Google's most prominent (and presumably expensive) efforts may not do much to further the company's profitability.

Gmail, out a couple years now and open to the public although officially still in beta stage, shook up the webmail sector when it was introduced with over a gigabyte of free storage. At the time, the leading webmail providers (Yahoo, MSN, Netscape) offered a few megabytes. Gmail's arrival on the scene forced everyone to up the amount of storage they offered.

But Gmail didn't become the leading webmail provider, despite a fairly unique menu and the ability to search your e-mails by keyword.

Google became the leading search engine primarily because it's searches returned better results than the competition (although with Microsoft and Yahoo having upgraded their search engines over the past few years, it's arguable if that still holds true.)

So much more popular than the No. 2 search engine, Yahoo, has Google become that the company's brand name has become synonymous with online searches, as in "Why don't you google that?"

But in webmail, Google doesn't offer any clearcut advantages now that all the major webmail services offer either comparable storage or, in the case of Yahoo, unlimited storage.

And so, while Gmail is indeed a popular choice for many who want a free Webmail account (advertising pays the bills on these services), there are plenty of people still using Yahoo, AOL/Netscape and Hotmail/Windows Live Mail.

And now, IM

At the same time it's developing its Gmail service, Google has also been working on an instant messaging system, Google Talk.

Like the umpteen other IM services surveyed last week, Google Talk uses a proprietary protocol – meaning if you use Google Talk, you can't chat with friends on AIM or Yahoo. (Although as was pointed out in last week's column, Yahoo and Microsoft now allow cross-platform compatibility).

Google Talk's calling card is the ability to chat from within a web browser, without using a standalone client.

But ICQ has offered that feature for years, and Yahoo does so, too. Others may do it as well.

And Google Talk's user base isn't as large as AIM, Yahoo or Microsoft's – not yet, anyway. Only people with Google accounts have Google Talk accounts, and that's not all that many people – mostly folks with Gmail accounts. Who else is going to log in to Google just to do a search? (And if you do, Google automatically tracks your search history unless you go into your account settings and turn it off.)

For now, AIM maintains its hold as the IM with the hip cachet among teens and college types – with my own kids asking if they can get on the computer and "AIM" their friends. Yahoo and Microsoft remain popular choices as well, and even ICQ has a large hold in the geek world.

Will Google Talk take over?

Maybe, but it seems less inevitable now than it might have a year or so ago.

Will it matter?

Whether dominance in chat will even matter is the better question. Cell phone text messaging is far more popular than chat is. Ask any high school teacher how often they have to take away a student's cell phone for texting in the middle of class.

A cell phone is far more ubiquitous than a computer, even a laptop. People text message on their phones while driving – not a good thing, I'll grant you, but surely a marker of how omnipresent text messaging is compared to instant messaging on a computer.

Like webmail accounts, the free IM services are advertiser supported – and so based on volume. Google, like its competitors, needs to achieve a critical mass of users in order to be able to charge enough for advertising space in its software to cover its expenses.

And unlike the search engine sector it now pretty much owns, Google's fortunes in IM are every bit as uncertain as they are in webmail.