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Oops, was that an IM or e-mail?

Vint Cerf, an architect of the Net, talks about interoperability of IM and e-mail--and some of the pitfalls.

SAN FRANCISCO--Communication formats from e-mail to instant messaging are beginning to converge, offering greater flexibility to end users as well as creating potential new headaches.

Vint Cerf, widely thought of as the father of the Internet, opined Thursday at the E-mail Technology Conference here that all messaging mediums--including SMS (Short Message System), e-mail, instant chat and voice mail--are equally important and require interoperability where it makes sense.

For example, instant chat provides an informality to people's discussions and lets them seamlessly transition between text, voice and video. "It should interwork with other messaging services like paging and SMS," he said.

But Cerf cautioned that there are unintended side effects with any advancement in technology. For example, by allowing voice mail to be indexed in e-mail, the communication is no longer as ephemeral as it once was, because it can be easily forwarded or disseminated onto the Internet.

"We need to think about the interoperation of all this communication because there could be side effects," he said.

Examples of communications convergence are proliferating fast.

At its technology lab in San Jose, Calif., Cisco Systems is showing off Internet phone applications that can convert voice messages into digital files that can be forwarded to an e-mail in-box, as well as e-mail that can be converted to audio that can be retrieved over a telephone.

The latest version of Microsoft's desktop e-mail application, Outlook 2003, matches the immediacy of IM, offering pop-up windows that notify recipients of new messages the moment they arrive.

Other companies are starting to push e-mail through IM networks.

This week, Internet marketing services developer MessageCast said it plans to release a test version of an e-mail alert tool aimed at bloggers that taps into Microsoft's MSN Messenger network. The service immediately notifies readers of new postings via instant messenger, e-mail or, on mobile phones, SMS.

"We're giving people an easy on-ramp to the real-time network," said MessageCast CEO Royal Farros. He added that the company is still negotiating with Yahoo and America Online to tap into their systems. "This offers a more effective way to reach readers than e-mail."

MessageCast is hoping to position its IM tools as an alternative to e-mail lists, which have become less reliable amid a rising tide of spam. But by pushing more commercial messages onto IM networks, the company runs the risk of being labeled a spammer--a perception Farros said the company is working hard to overcome.

IM is more spam-resistant than e-mail, Farros said, because it gives end users the ability to opt in and out of distribution lists without the need to go through an intermediary, thus ensuring messages go only to people who really want them. In addition, IM currently has better authentication security than e-mail, making it more difficult for spammers to hide behind anonymous or stolen accounts, Farros said.

"Will this become a spam engine? No, this will help guarantee messages are 100 percent solicited," he said. "This is an education issue we face each and every day."