KN on IM

The web is in a tither about the pending release of Google Talk, an IM program by everyone’s favorite company. IM, or instant messaging, programs allow users to text message and share files over the internet more or less instantly. Increasingly, these programs are expanding their features to add audio chat, video chat and even VOIP telephone calls.

I’ve used IM programs a little. I started out with ICQ a few years ago, then migrated to AOL IM (or AIM for short), and ended up using Windows Messenger (now called MSN Messenger to fool the feds into thinking that it’s not embedded in Windows). Yahoo also has a widely used program. Now there’s a new player in the game, and anything by Google will quickly become a force to be reckoned with.

Why did I keep changing IM programs? It’s simple, I was chasing the user base. Since these programs do not communicate with each other, I kept changing programs based on which one I thought most people I wanted to communicate with were using. Let me be clear about this: generally speaking, these programs use proprietary protocols that only allow you to communicate with other users of the same program. If you’re using MSN Messenger, you can’t send an IM to someone who uses AIM, etc. This is why these programs have not and will not be widely accepted by adults and businesses. Some businesses use security risks as the reason not to implement IM, but companies said the same thing about email back in the day.

Why don’t they allow interconnectivity? Because they are competing based on user base and not on features and reliability. AIM has most of the AOL users (though you do not have to be an AOL customer to use it) and a large base of other users. Yahoo (the only company that can compete head to head with Google based on anything other than a large war chest of dollars) has a big user base. Microsoft has a program that is embedded into Windows, a large user base and a war chest of billions it can use to remain in the game. Each of these companies wants to win the user base war. Sharing protocols and allowing interconnectivity would turn IM programs into a commodity. These companies who are competing to become the one-stop internet shop for the masses do not want IM programs to become a commodity.

Kids are better at technology than adults and will go to great lengths to communicate away from the ears and eyes of adults. While this creates headaches for parents, it ensures a regular supply of users for all of the major IM programs. If a kid has to install 2 or 3 IM programs to communicate with her friends, she’ll do it. If the IT department at my firm has to do that, forget it. I’ll be told to use email and forget about the 2 minutes that I might save if I could use an IM program.

Then there’s the over-40 problem. For most people over 40 sending an email attachment or uploading a photo to Flickr is a major technological accomplishment. Trying to get these same people to understand and install an IM program and then to deal with it when they can’t communicate with Aunt Jane, who uses a different program? That’s a recipe for failure.

Until IM programs become like telephones, where the provider and the manufacturer of the telephone have nothing to do with who you can and can’t call, IM will simply not be adopted by grown-ups and businesses. At least not until today’s teenagers grow up and run companies or, more importantly, IT Departments.

So I may install Google Talk when it’s released tomorrow. But if I do, it’s only because I am curious. It won’t be because I think I’ll be able to communicate with anyone I know. To do that, I’ll have to use the telephone.

Dwight Silverman is blogging about Google Talk and Download Squad has a review and some screen shots.

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