Wednesday, August 24, 2005

United Federation of Chat  

Google has just come out with Google Talk, their new IM service.

Google Talk screenshotThe application part of it is very pretty; looking at the screenshots, it's essentially iChat for Windows. Simple, clean, and easy to use.

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.


  • Anonymous said...

    I think it's a great idea, in concept. However, I really think Google needs to let their service allow Jabber/XMPP "S2S" to other, arbitrary Jabber networks. As it stands now, they seem to want to have tight control over who is allowed to join this "federation". I really think that the're doing a dis-service to the Jabber community by not allowing open S2S. After, this is one of the primary principles behind Jabber, decentralized service, akin to any other IANA approved protocol that has been accepted by the 'net.

    i think since you wrote this article, they have purchased a certain amount of AOL (5% I think it was) and part of the deal, I believe is to allow some kind of integration with AIM and Google Talk. I think this is a great first step, on Google's part, as being able to inteoperate with AIM is a big plus. Now, if they would just show the world that they really believe in open standards and become good Jabber citizens, I'd be happy.

  • Drew Thaler said...

    I agree 100%. A good first step would be to make it truly open and support the pre-existing Jabber S2S network. I'm a little surprised they haven't done so yet because that seems like a no-brainer. But perhaps as part of hooking up with Sipphone and AIM they needed to remain closed off for a while. It makes sense as a software development strategy -- they'd need to keep the software in limited-release for a while so that they have a chance to play with the IM network with a relatively small number of users before they open it up big-time.

    I read somewhere (looks like it was the Jabber Wikipedia entry) that their stated reason for not doing it yet was that they want to solve issues of spam and security. It seems likely to me that AIM in particular would have concerns about those, so perhaps remaining closed for now is a strategy to get those technical loose ends tied up as part of federating AIM.

    I wrote this article literally right after GTalk came out, and both a lot and not a lot has happened since then. First of all, GTalk has remained boring and empty -- nobody uses it. But Google also recently bought 5% of AOL, which seems (though I don't know for sure) to be partly about AIM. And they have started open dialogues on federation with the community at large. A build of the GTalk client is available that works with S2S. And so on. It's not there for the end user yet, but things are coming along.

    Overall, the progress is slow but it's there. And like I said, Google has a lot of weight to throw around and a huge potential user base, so if anyone can break down the divisions between networks it may be them. We'll see what happens in a year or two.

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Wow, no sooner said than done. Yesterday:

    "We've just announced open federation for the Google Talk service. What does that mean, you might be wondering. No, it has nothing to do with Star Trek. "Open federation" is technical jargon for when people on different services can talk to each other."

    In other words, they have opened up to the Jabber network. They also apparently support sending text messages to some cellphone providers now. I guess it's almost time for a new post on GTalk.

  • Anonymous said...

    Seems like AOL is doing a jabber based implementation of AIM/ICQ. Though it's been nearly 2 years since you posted this, I find that interesting.

  • Alantrah Aston said...