E-mail style universal interoperability would add huge value for users, says Jack Schofield
Can Google change the world of instant messaging? With last month's launch of Google Talk, in a first beta version, it is going to try.
At the moment, instant messaging is being crippled by a Balkanisation of the market that is incompatible with users' needs.
Running an instant messaging system is like being thrown back to the 1980s, when you needed a Prestel account to send e-mail to other Prestel users, a Compu-serve account to write to Compu-serve users, a Telecom Gold account for ITT Dialcom users, an AOL account... and so on.
When the use of internet e-mail took off, everyone could communicate with everyone else, and proprietary mail services either adapted or died.
Today, many instant messaging users still have to join more than one service - the main options include AOL's ICQ and AIM, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN Messenger.
Although some client programs can work with more than one service, such as Trillian, instant messaging still lacks the universal interoperability that makes e-mail - and the post and telephone services - so valuable.
It is a common problem because real services tend to precede standards, and early players in the instant messaging market had to make it up as they went along. However, this is no excuse for not agreeing common gateways, which AOL, the market leader, has blocked.
But times are changing because the internet now has a standard: Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), specified in RFC's 3290-93. XMPP is based on the Jabber open source messaging protocols, and Google Talk is based on XMPP.
Jabber enables any company to run its own instant messaging server behind a firewall. It has attracted some notable users, such as AT&T, EDS, FedEx, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and Sun. However, it has never looked like gaining the market power needed to change the instant messaging market. Google could do that.
Google Talk is allied to Google's Gmail service, so all users must have a Gmail account. However, they do not all have to run Google Talk software, which is only available for Windows 2000 and XP. Linux and Mac OS X users can use Jabber-compatible client software instead - though only for instant messaging, not for voice chat.
As a late entrant to the market, Google is taking baby steps forward. So far, Google Talk users can only send instant messaging to people registered on Google's servers, not those on Jabber servers. Also, rather than putting its instant messaging servers on the public Jabber network, Google is signing up partners under a federation programme.
However, Georges Harik, Google's director of product management, assures me that the intention is to make Google Talk an open service where members of the community can communicate without gatekeepers.
It is what the instant messaging market should be. And if Google cannot make it happen, it will at least give Jabber a boost.
Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian
This was first published in September 2005