Long associated with casual text-based conversations among teens and singles in America Online chat rooms, IM technology is now poised not only to gain mainstream acceptance, but to establish itself as an independent platform for a variety of communications and information-gathering applications.
Already, instant messaging applications from mainstream software and media companies Yahoo, AOL Time Warner and Microsoft offer a long menu of communications tools that go beyond the traditional text-based instant message. These include audio chat and PC-to-phone telephony, videoconferencing, file sharing and multiplayer games.
A further glimpse of what may be in store came last week, as Microsoft showed off several new IM capabilities in the pipeline at an analyst conference. One of these would make it possible to exchange drawings, or "ink," in instant messages, an application that could find a place in messaging over handheld devices. The other lets IM correspondents collaborate on messages with an editing capability for drawings and text.
As the major contenders and their smaller competitors work overtime to come up with new IM-based applications, analysts are bracing for a coming wave of innovation and investment, provided key rivals can sort outthat have kept their services from working together. By independently adding new bells and whistles to IM, Microsoft in particular may be hoping to prod America Online to open its network to competing services faster.
"We're approaching a major milestone in instant messaging," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group. "This is technology that's been around forever, but it hasn't really gone mainstream in terms of everybody using it. Right now the interoperability issue is really holding people back. Once interoperability becomes real, you'll see an explosion of new capabilities."
Rivals, especially Microsoft, have been clamoring to be able to trade messages with subscribers of America Online's Instant Messenger and ICQ applications, who number in the tens of millions. The Federal Communications Commission has required that AOL report on its steps to make its systems interoperate with other IM applications, and AOL last week said it had scheduled tests toward that goal.
Microsoft fights back
The lack of interoperability hasn't kept Microsoft from building a host of new tools on top of its own application.
Microsoft is demonstrating its new IM application, Windows Messenger, which will let people share applications, giving one person the ability to write in another person's word processing document, for example. Windows Messenger is scheduled to launch in October as part of the company's new Windows XP operating system.
While the three major players vie to keep up with one another in the features race, AOL downplays the importance of IM's bells and whistles, focusing on the simple text messaging that helped popularize its online service and brought it to a dominant position in the IM market at large.
In fact, although AOL and ICQ measure up against most available features offered by rivals, AOL publicly dismisses the demand for these types of services.
"We have experimented with features on AOL IM," Barry Schuler, chief executive of America Online, said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "We have tested over the years and have had operational over the years the ability to add videos, the ability to transmit videos over real time, the ability to do voice. And in the end, it's not something consumers are interested in.
"It's not to say that there aren't applications in the enterprise world and other places that would make sense. It's just not the business we're in. It also happens to be a business that Microsoft is very good at, and if Microsoft is interested in pursuing messaging-based applications in the enterprise market, that's great."
Schuler's contention that consumers are uninterested in video and voice-over-IP is borne out by those technologies' slow adoption rates.
But some view that slow adoption as a function of low-bandwidth environments and warn against judging the tastes of an increasingly high-bandwidth world based on focus groups populated by America Online subscribers.
"It's invalid to extrapolate from modem dial-up users and predict where people are going to go in the future," O'Kelly said. "Maybe these technologies don't work very well if you're using AOL as your ISP. For AOL to say that text-based IM is the way people will want to communicate until the end of time is not a good bet. When you use Windows Messenger in XP and it works, and the video quality is good and the sound is good, why are you going to have that conversation in text or over the phone?"
That said, O'Kelly predicted a long life for simple text messaging among the populations that made it popular to begin with, particularly in chat room environments where a not-quite real-time method of communication is optimal.
"If I want to have one-to-one conversations with 17 people, I can't do that on the phone," O'Kelly said. "The etiquette for text IM is that you're not going to worry about it if I don't respond for 30 seconds. But I just don't think that's representative of the way most of humanity wants to interact."
AOL is betting, however, that most of its subscribers, and most of its future subscribers, are happy with the status quo. When asked to describe what kind of R&D effort the company is putting into the next wave of IM development, executives emphasize the basics: simple text chat.
"What's allowed us to be so successful so far is that it's simpler and easier to use," said Raul Mujica, general manager for AIM. "Our challenge is to make it even simpler and easier to use as we sign on the next generation of users: people's grandmothers and folks totally new to the Internet."
Like Schuler, Mujica casts a jaundiced eye not only on the proliferation of new features and tools being built into IM applications, but on the whole idea of IM emerging as a platform for application development.
AOL doubts, for example, that its tens of millions of consumers will clamor for whiteboarding capabilities in their IM application.
More likely, according to Mujica, is that the increasing popularity of IM continues for some time to generate hype about the technology that its future is unlikely to match. Mujica and others compare the present speculation about IM's potential as a platform to the expectations raised when e-mail went mainstream in the mid-1990s.
"People were looking at it as the next emerging platform," Mujica said. "It's an extremely valuable tool, but it didn't wind up the end-all platform where all feature development was going to be based on it. Some features of IM, like presence, will be used in other applications, for example in wireless. But the expectations of a platform are always higher than the reality.
"I don't really think you're going to see stock trades done via an IM platform," he added.
Perhaps not, but that isn't keeping AOL's rivals from thinking far ahead into IM's future. Beyond the new capabilities coming with Windows Messenger in October, Microsoft is contemplating an IM application with a keen sense of where you are and what you're doing.
Seeking easy access
The problem with current IM applications, Microsoft researchers say, is their limited capacity to give details about the "presence" of consumers. An IM client might say that someone is available, or inactive, but Microsoft one day wants to make those indications more precise.
"I think the current availability features are very primitive," said Anoop Gupta, senior researcher at Microsoft. "It is saying, 'Have you been typing on your keyboard or not?' I might be in my office reading or on the telephone. So one of the things we're doing is to change the sense of availability, using other sensors like cameras and microphones, looking at your keyboard. It means getting a much more precise sense of availability."
Another problem Microsoft researchers are trying to solve has to do with how they expect people to access IM applications in the future. The challenge will be to recognize the recipient's context and translate the message accordingly. For example, if a voice message is sent to a handheld computing device, researchers would like to translate that message into text. If text is sent to a computer in an automobile, they would like to translate it into audio.
"The difficult part of that is sensing context," Gupta said. "Automatically sensing that I'm in a meeting or a car, in an automated way in which privacy is respected--that's a challenge, and takes lots of pieces of infrastructure being brought together."
The work of translating voice IMs to text and vice versa is well under way. Jabber, an IM company that bases its products on the open-source work of Jabber.org, is developing just such a translation service with speech recognition company Nuance.
Other small companies are experimenting with various applications that build on instant-messaging technology to deliver information that people are used to seeking through search engines or Web content portals. ActiveBuddy, for example, recently introduced a service that answers queries through a variety of IM applications, and answers those queries through buddy characters tailored for clients. ActiveBuddy's first high-profile client, Radiohead, launched last month.
"That's a trend you're going to see more and more," said Avner Ronen, founder and vice president of strategic development at Odigo, which has collaborated with ActiveBuddy on a service for the Odigo client. "It's a way to access information in a very intuitive, natural language interface. It's not going to replace everything we do. It will have its niche. But I believe it will be very successful because it's so intuitive, much more so than going to a Web site and typing in a question."