China Mobile, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone were among the 14 network providers that have signed up for the IM initiative, backed by the GSM Association, promising a customer base of 700 million users worldwide.
Robert Conway, CEO of the GSM Association, said interoperable messaging is a landmark for the associations' members and will provide a blueprint for the launch of other mobile services.
The operators have agreed to charge mobile IM users for outgoing messages but incoming messages will be free. According to Arun Sarin, CEO of Vodafone, this will cut down on unwanted messages being sent to consumers' mobile phones.
"There will be fewer viruses and less spam than on many Internet-based services," he said.
Traditionally, operators have been loath to push services such as mobile IM and e-mail, fearing it would cannibalize lucrative SMS (Short Message Service) messaging. Rene Obermann, head of T-Mobile, denied such suggestions. "Overall, we believe it will increase data usage," he said.
However, thewill take some time to come to fruition, as currently only high-end phones such as those running on Microsoft or Symbian will be able to use the service. It will be on most handsets bought next year, according to the operators, although some handsets now in circulation won't be able to be upgraded at all.
The question of Internet service providers and Web IM operators could also serve to stymie the sharing. While some operators that sell broadband access and mobile subscriptions--such as France Telecom, which owns both Orange and Wanadoo--will be able to make their PC- and mobile-based offerings interoperable, other Net players such as Microsoft's MSN have not joined the initiative, despite overtures from the operators.
According to Mark Newman, chief research officer at analyst house Informa, the conspicuous absence of Web-based IM companies will prove a hurdle in driving mobile IM take-up. "If you don't have MSN and mobile IM, where's your marketplace? You've got to take a PC-centric view of the universe," he said.
While the operators believe that the service will be a hit with the youth market, Newman added there was "no chance" such consumers will shun free Internet-based services for their mobile counterparts. "It's too little, too late," he said.
Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from Barcelona.