Half Stepping the Big Stairs: the Irrelevance of IM

Fred Wilson is excited about AOL opening up AIM (sort of) to third party developers for incorporation into their products. He challenges AOL to take the only step that matters by allowing interoperability with the other IM applications. Jason Calacanis, who now works for AOL, agrees.

Letting developers build on top of AOL is fine. Steve Rubel points out the potential benefits to marketers via add-ons like AIM bots and feed alerts.

But this is a half step up a giant staircase. Rather than a parade and confetti, we need to be looking and AOL and saying “And……what else???”

Until IM applications are like phones, IM will never, ever be adopted by the masses. Text messaging has already passed IM in race for the instant communication mindshare primarily because you don’t need 5 cell phones in your pocket to make it work. Text messaging works cross-provider.

The IM race is still being run by closed, proprietary horses 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. Google launched Google Talk, which promptly faded only to suffer relentless CPR at the hands of Gmail.

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. Certainly AOL, trying unsuccessfully to stem the flow from behind the walls of its newbie castle, doesn’t want to give those newbies one more reason to cross the moat into the real internet.

Unless and until the day anyone can IM anyone else, all of this talk about IM applications is much ado about nothing.

In August of last year I wrote about the IM situation. I can’t sum it up any better today than I did then:

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.

And that’s really too bad. IM could have been a contender.

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