If there’s one application that has cried out for open standards and open code from the very beginning, it’s IM (instant messaging). Proprietary IM clients from the likes of AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo have always been invasive, garish affairs, full of ads and each tied to its own network.
Most of the heavy IM users I know have come to rely on third-party clients like Gaim and Trillian, but those are just work-arounds. They let you keep in touch with your contacts on multiple services, but in truth they only give the appearance of a unified whole. You still need a separate account with each of the services if you want to be able to access their networks.
That’s a shame, because there’s more to IM than just chit-chat. IM enables the concept of presence: knowing whether someone is online and what they’re doing at any given point in time. Presence makes possible a whole range of creative collaboration applications, but so long as users remain scattered across several isolated networks, it’s difficult to gather presence information in a reliable way.
That’s why it was good news when MSN and Yahoo announced that they would take steps to make their IM networks partly interoperable in the coming year. Under the agreement announced last week, users of each company’s IM network would be able to exchange messages, voice chat, and presence information with the other.
Google, far and away the leader in Internet search, announced its entry into the IM market in August. And instead of just imitating what has come before, it looks like Google actually plans to do IM right.
Google Talk, currently in beta, is based on XMPP (eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), an open, XML-based messaging protocol developed for the open source messaging client, Jabber. That means that unlike AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) or Yahoo Messenger, third-party ISVs won’t have to scramble to reverse-engineer the Google Talk protocol stack every time it changes. (And if hiring the lead developer of the popular open source Gaim IM client is any indication, Google has no plans to lock its users into a proprietary client application, either.)
One thing that makes Jabber and XMPP attractive to businesses is that, because the protocols and software are open, any company can set up and maintain its own IM server. That’s a more reliable and a more secure way to manage corporate IM, but the downside is that such an independent IM network is, in effect, an island.
Google’s got a plan to fix that, too. Rumor has it that developing a method for IM federation, a means by which independent IM networks can link together to share messaging and presence information, is high on Google’s agenda. If it’s successful, it could spell the end of the days of the closed, proprietary IM network altogether, and make the MSN-Yahoo deal look like little more than a footnote to history.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy to see that MSN and Yahoo are beginning to cooperate. But Google’s got the right idea: Embracing open standards is the way IM should have been done from the beginning.