Instant messaging moves to cell phones

Start-ups @Mobile and Tribal Voice are linking popular Internet instant messaging systems with wireless phones.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
A pair of instant messaging companies have teamed up to link hugely popular Internet instant messaging systems with wireless phones.

The technology, a joint effort by wireless start-up @Mobile and Net firm Tribal Voice, aspires to break down the barriers that have kept computer users and wireless phone users on different communication systems.

While the technology is still months from commercial use--and in danger of being passed up or co-opted by Internet giants such as America Online--analysts say the idea behind it is likely to be one of the success stories in the fluid wireless software market.

"One of the driving criteria of wireless is instant gratification," said Jane Zweig, executive vice president of Herschel Shosteck Associates, a wireless research and consulting firm. "Instant messaging really falls into that."

Wireless text messaging has a short but fast-moving history overseas, if not yet in the United States. European and Asian phone systems are commonly used for a different kind of near-instant communications system that acts as a kind of hybrid between email and systems like AOL's Instant Messenger (IM). Based on a slightly different technology, these features have been hugely popular with teens overseas.

But unlike the popular IM system, those systems don't have the "buddy list" that monitors other people's status or notifies a user when another person comes online.

It's that feature that has helped drive the popularity of systems such as AOL's ICQ and IM, and which @Mobile is hoping to ride to the top of the wireless software business.

The wireless upstart patented its own "buddy list" technology late last year, allowing it to create phone-to-phone instant messaging. It's attempting to sell the technology to big wireless phone carriers--although it doesn't have any finalized deals in place. It's going into trials with several carriers soon, executives said.

The duo today launched new technology to link cell phone messages to personal computers, where millions of users already are exchanging instant messages every day.

Using a combination of @Mobile's wireless software and Tribal Voice's PC-based programs, a user can send messages back and forth from a mobile phone to a PC. The system will be demonstrated for the first time at next week's Wireless 2000 trade show in New Orleans, the companies said.

Tribal Voice, headed by erstwhile antivirus guru John McAfee, has its own PowWow instant messenger application, but also builds branded software for other services such as AT&T WorldNet and AltaVista.

It's also one of the only companies whose messaging lists can tap into AOL's buddy lists, allowing people who use the two systems to talk to each other. This may not be a permanent state of affairs, however--AOL has spent considerable time and money blocking other instant messaging companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo--and Tribal Voice--from tapping into its buddy lists, and has shown no willingness to open its systems to others in the long term.

The two upstarts' technology--and @Mobile's business model--does have significant kinks to work out before it joins its computer-based predecessor's rocket ride.

The popularity of instant messaging on the PC has been determined largely by its ease of use. Although analysts say the quick adoption of rudimentary messaging over cell phones in Europe and Asia shows there is a market, it's still not easy to type a message on a mobile phone's number pad.

@Mobile is addressing this, providing some pre-programmed responses for users, with notes such as "I received your message," or "I'll call you back." But this is still a far cry from the quick give-and-take possible with personal computer messaging.

Other companies are also moving forward with voice chat interfaces, and are likely to bridge the PC-phone gap soon. Firetalk, a voice chat company based on instant messaging technology, says it is working to add telephone access to its service so that its PC chat users can call out to a wireless phone. AudioTalk Networks, a site-specific Web voice chat technology, already allows this option.

Also looming large in the technology's future is the specter of AOL, which dominates the instant messaging market, and already has relationships with Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, the world's largest mobile phone makers.

"The landline side of instant messaging is locked up by AOL at this point," Zweig said. "I think @Mobile has identified a very important application. But I don't think they will be unique in that."

@Mobile's service will not be available commercially until the phone companies agree to offer it to their subscribers.