I've been agitating with e-mail vendors for years to integrate instant messaging. After all, why should e-mail and IM be two completely different applications, on two different networks, with two different address books? Both applications are forms of person-to-person text communication. They belong together.
It took a few years of kvetching and waiting, but the major online e-mail providers have started to integrate the two experiences. Google lets you kick off a chat from its Gmail interface, for example. But that's nothing like what Yahoo is showing off today at the Web 2.0 Conference: The first real integration of IM and e-mail.
In the new version of the Yahoo Mail beta, which will roll out "in a few months," you can start to compose an e-mail just as you always would, but if the recipient of your e-mail is online (on Yahoo IM, MSN IM, or on Yahoo Mail), you'll be able to exchange your e-mail composition window for a chat window. Or, of the recipient comes online while you are writing an e-mail, you'll get an alert, and will be able to invite them to chat. When you do, the e-mail you've been writing will get copied into the chat window. Likewise, if you're chatting and they drop offline, the transcript will get copied into the window as it changes from chat to e-mail.
This integration should make it very easy to maneuver between the two communication types, and it will also help people new to IM to get with the program. It doesn't require a downloaded IM client; directly from the Yahoo E-mail web page, you'll be able to chat with anyone.
The demo we saw last night was run by Ethan Diamond, one of the creators of the OddPost e-mail platform that Yahoo acquired. We weren't able to try the new version ourselves, but it did appear that the transition between chatting and e-mail was clear and simple. The next step, I suppose, will be adding audio and video messaging to the platform.