Google has just come out with Google Talk, their new IM service.
In fact, it looks so much like iChat that it probably borders on copyright-infringing, but hey -- that's for Google and Apple to work out between themselves. It's Jabber-based, supports SSL, and seems very nice overall.
But an IM service is an IM service, and we've got too many of them. The real news is buried in the middle of a page called "Additional Resources". That's where Google quietly announces that they are starting an initiative to merge all the separate IM networks into one. Emphasis mine:
What is "service choice" and how does Google Talk enable it?
Service choice is something you have with email and, for the most part, with your regular phone service today. This means that regardless of whom you choose as your email service provider (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, your school or ISP, etc), you can email anyone who is using another service provider. The same applies to phone service. You can call someone even if they do not use the same phone company as you do. This allows you to choose your service provider based on other more important factors, such as features, quality of service, and price, while still being able to talk to anyone you want.
Unfortunately, the same is not true with most popular IM and VOIP networks today. If the people you want to talk to are all on different IM/VOIP services, you need to sign up for an account on each service and connect to each service to talk to them.
We plan to partner with other willing service providers to enable federation of our services. This means that a user on one service can communicate with users on another service without needing to sign up for, or sign in with, each service.
What the... federation? Whoa, you mean I won't need to have a separate ICQ number and AIM account and Yahoo Messenger account and MSN Chat account to keep in touch with all of my friends and family and work contacts? Why, that ... that would actually be good for the end user. Unpossible!
Crazy as it seems, it looks like Google has a shot at doing it. Rather than standardizing on one network, their description makes me think they are taking a network-to-network bridge approach. So you'd still use your existing account and chat application, and you'd still have all the network-specific features you were used to, but you'd be able to talk to more people. Perfect. I would also expect, given Google's track record, that it would be done 'right': ie, it would be decentralized and all the networks would be peers. Networks that join up would not be beholden to Google in any way.
If that's so, then it seems likely that we'll see consolidation in reverse order of marketshare: all the small players will join up with Google immediately because it's good business sense for them: Their networks suddenly become huge and they are free to differentiate themselves on software alone. Mid-size networks like ICQ will probably follow soon thereafter. Yahoo and MSN might hold out for longer because they would hate to give in to Google, but popular demand from their users will make it necessary.
And then there was one.
The big one, AOL, will probably be harder to win over. I don't have a solid source for current IM marketshare numbers, which is partly because it's a confusing mess since so many people are forced to use multiple IM services. But the data I've been able to find suggest that AOL and AIM have a massive dominance in the IM field, perhaps covering about 50-70% of all IM users. The problem, of course, is that AIM is proprietary and AOL has refused to open it up for a long time now.
I don't know what will happen there. Clearly Google thinks it's worth a shot. And AOL has opened up the AIM network before, for iChat, so it's possible they'll do it again in the name of an open standard. But the company's sluggish history with moving onto the Internet and supporting email and web standards suggests that they will only be dragged into compliance kicking and screaming; as long as there's a buck to be made by being incompatible they would rather be incompatible. It's possible that for quite a while we'll probably be faced with AIM on one side and everyone else on the other. While not perfect, that would at least be better than what we have now.
So what do you think? Are you concerned that Google has got its sticky fingers into too much stuff? Got any links to actual IM marketshare numbers? Let me know.