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Google-Yahoo deal good news for IM, but...

Tucked into the Yahoo-Google ad agreement is a deal to bridge instant-messaging services. That's great news for IM, but it doesn't fix underlying flaws of online chat.

Instant-messaging power users, rejoice: a barrier between two previously isolated realms of online chat is coming down.

A minor sidelight in the Yahoo-Google search ad deal announced Thursday is that the two companies "agreed to enable interoperability between their respective instant-messaging services, bringing easier and broader communication to users," the companies said. They're not sharing further details at this stage, but it's safe to bet that means people on Yahoo's IM network will be able to chat with those on Google's and vice-versa.

That's a big step in the right direction.

IM is a useful if sometimes intrusive tool, especially in this day and age when the Internet has tightened ties among co-workers, family, and friends. But people and companies don't always use the same networks, meaning that power users either must run multiple IM programs or try to bridge the divide with multiprotocol packages such as Trillian, Adium, Digsby, Kopete, or Pidgin.

IM today is similar to the early days of electronic mail, when users couldn't send messages between incompatible services such as AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe. Happily, the Internet's SMTP standard for e-mail emerged victorious, and now we only need one e-mail address (leaving aside the issue of personal vs. work identities, but that's a story for another day).

A power user's plight
I'm one of those heavy IM users tormented by today's situation. I have to talk to people on Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and Google Talk. It's a pain having separate usernames for each service, but much worse is looking for software that centralizes IM for me.

I recognize I'm not a representative sample of the population at large. I have 797 buddies, many of them the same people represented on multiple services.

AOL said in a statement, in effect, that I am indeed an anomaly. "We have no evidence that interoperating with other consumer IM services is of great interest to AIM users," the company said.

But I've seen the problem worsen in the years I've used IM, and I believe mainstream people will encounter this problem with greater frequency as they change jobs, graduate from schools, meet new friends, and otherwise expand their social horizons.

Walled gardens
There are signs that these days are numbered. As Internet companies race to build rich communities and services on the Web, "walled gardens" have become widely disparaged as a relic.

Yahoo, for example, has pledged to expose formerly closed parts of its business through its Yahoo Open Strategy. And AOL is opening up AIM some, for example, letting Meebo and eBuddy link up.

But it'll take awhile to convince me that the IM walls are truly coming down.

For one thing, most of the progress to date has been through interoperability agreements that permit one service to link with another. That's like CompuServe building a custom gateway to translate and route e-mail from AOL--helpful, but symptomatic of the larger problem. The more IM services there are, the more gateways each service needs to work with the others, and more services are cropping up as companies such as MySpace, Skype, and Facebook add chat abilities.

What we really need is an IM communication standard. The obvious candidate is the XMPP protocol on which Google built its service but that none of the other major players use.

Google, unsurprisingly, shares my view. "The Web is based on open standards and protocols so users can use any browser on any operating system to visit any Web site. We think the open Web model ought to apply to IM," Seth Demsey, senior product manager for Google Talk, said in a statement.

Of course, it's a lot easier for underdogs to endorse standards, and Google has 1 percent share of IM users worldwide, according to ComScore figures in April.

Interoperability isn't easy
To be fair, IM interoperability isn't an easy technical problem to tackle for mammoth services with millions of users and messages. There also are privacy issues when one service is sharing data and buddy lists with another.

More complicated are higher-level features and services that IM companies have added atop basic text chat: status messages, avatars, file transfer, voice and video chat, message forwarding to mobile phones. I think there's still value to unifying basic text chat even if higher-level features remain fragmented.

Then, of course, there are business reasons to keep things separate. Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft all display ads on their services, and AOL is trying to make its service into a foundation on which programmers will create online applications. Opening up IM connections to other services means, for example, that someone using AIM might not see the ads displayed on the AIM software.

I can't help but wonder, though, if a unified IM landscape might spur faster growth and more extensive use of IM services--factors that mean those people using popular chat software could spend even more time gazing at ads.

Other interoperability deals
There are some other interoperability deals besides the Yahoo-Google one announced Thursday. Most notably, users of Microsoft and Yahoo instant-messenger services can link up and chat if they're using recent versions of the software.

And there could be more progress on this front: "Microsoft looks forward to continuing our interoperability reach to customers worldwide," Brian Hall, Microsoft's general manager of Windows Live, said in a statement.

Users of Apple iChat can link with AIM and Google.

Google's situation is complicated, in part because it has multiple IM options. The company offers Google Talk in two incarnations: client software that can be installed on Windows machines and a gadget that runs in a Web browser. Those versions can work with any XMPP-based chat service. (They're not popular, so you probably haven't heard of them.)

Google also has Gmail chat, which runs alongside the company's Web-based e-mail service. It can work with AIM.

So tell me: Am I an anomaly because I use multiple chat networks? And how do you solve your IM needs? Does a single IM client suffice, or do you use two to cover the bases? Send an e-mail to or share your opinion in the feedback section below.