Now, You’re Google-Talking on IM

Google ended a year of speculation on Wednesday, announcing a VoIP-enabled instant messaging client.

The voice-enabled IM service actually went live on Tuesday afternoon, according to blogger Ben Guild, who was able to log on around 5:40 EDT.

The new service marks another step on Google’s evolution from search service to Internet gateway.

The free Google Talk service lets users initiate text or voice chats from a stripped-down interface. The service is integrated with Google’s free e-mail service, Gmail, so that, when a Gmail user downloads the IM application, it’s instantly populated with that person’s Gmail contacts.

“It will be easy to install, uncluttered and very fast to start up,” said Georges Harik, Google product director.

“All Google’s competitors have this kind of capability or are developing it; maybe out of necessity, Google needed to develop IM and VoiP,” said Kelsey Group analyst Greg Sterling.

Yahoo Messenger launched a PC-to-PC voice chat feature in 1999. In August 2005, it launched Yahoo Messenger with Voice, which is based on SIP and includes voicemail. AOL launched a consumer version of its AIM Voice Conferencing service in December 2004.

Sterling said it was natural for Google to combine IM and VOiP, but interesting that it tied them into e-mail. “If you adopt this, you need to sign up for Gmail, which will drive Gmail adoption as a byproduct of the popularity of this,” he said. reportedin August 2004 on rumors that Google was building an instant messaging client based on the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) .

Google Talk is indeed built on XMPP, which allows it to interoperate with other such systems. “This will be an open system,” Harik said. “We’re trying to make instant messaging work in the same way that e-mail and the phone just work between providers.”

Google Talk users will be able to connect to a number of other services, including Jabber, iChat, Trillium and GAIM. The company also is working on interoperability with the other major IM networks. Harik said it had extended offers to AOL, Yahoo and Skype, and planned to contact Microsoft about interoperation with MSN Messenger.

The company also is collaborating with SIPhone, a provider of voice-over-IP, and ISP Earthlink to connect their service with Google Talk.

Google Talk users do need a Gmail account, and so do users of other IM services who want to connect to Google Talk users. Harik said that’s necessary because Google Talk uses the Gmail notifier system to show whether friends are online. Gmail accounts remain available by invitation only, although users start out with 50 invitations that are automatically replenished. In addition, users of Web-enabled mobile phones can access from their phones to be authenticated and receive a Gmail account.

Sterling said Google’s explanations of the cell phone authentication system seemed convoluted. While there’s no specific wireless functionality attached to Google Talk, he said that this angle might point to a wider range of services in the future.

If Google’s master plan is to match the on-search related features of its competitors, it’s playing catchup.

In April, America Online announced interoperability agreements with four enterprise IM vendors that would allow them federated access to the company’s messaging network. Antepo, Jabber, Omnipod and Parlano agreed to pay a per-seat fee to enable their customers to communicate with those using the AOL messaging network.

In July 2004, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo began a collaborative effort to enable connectivity between Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 and the AOL, MSN and Yahoo largest public IM networks.

According to online audience measurement firm comScore, in July 2005, AOL’s AIM had 30 million unique visitors, slightly down from usage one year ago; MSN Messenger grew 11 percent to 25.9 million unique users; and Yahoo Messenger grew 16 percent to 25.6 million.

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