Will it take a "Village" to send an IM?

Handset behemoths Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson join forces to create a way for cell phone users to send instant messages to each other, regardless of their phone's model.

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Wireless IM standard in the works
Craig Peddie, general manager, Motorola
Three of the world's top four handset makers are joining forces to create a way for cell phone users to send instant messages to each other, regardless of the make, model or software inside the phone.

Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson announced Thursday they are involved in a joint effort they are calling "Wireless Village" to create a set of specifications for handset makers and carriers to follow. The world gets its first peek at the specifications by year's end, according to Nokia spokeswoman Megan Matthews.

She expects products built around the specifications to start reaching consumers by the end of 2002.

"Our concern is we want to avoid a Tower of Babel here," said Frank Dawson, in charge of mobile instant messaging at Nokia.

If successful, the "Wireless Village" could knock down a hurdle that some analysts believe stands between a struggling telecommunication industry and the billions of dollars in revenues projected for the years to come when the higher speed networks are finally offered.

With the cost of making a phone call dropping, telephone service providers have been struggling to find ways to make cash. Most are planning to offer higher speed service in the coming years, capable of not just making a phone call but doing things like sending instant messages, cruising the Internet or getting behind a corporate firewall.

But phones can send messages instantly to each other only if they share the same Instant Messaging software from companies like America Online or Yahoo. In the "Wireless Village," the make, model or carrier type wouldn't matter.

Analysts had a mixed initial review of the proposal. Jane Zweig, chief executive of The Shosteck Group, said it might be a hard sell for some European carriers that are now making "tons of money" by offering a service that lets cell phone users send short text messages between them.

IM vs. SMS
The practice is known as SMS (Short Messaging Service). While it appears to be the same as Instant Messaging, there is one big difference. SMS is like an e-mail in that it's sent without any idea if the person receiving it is online. But Instant Messaging services have something called "presence" technology, which lets a user know if a message sender's recipient is online.

SMS is already popular in Europe, where carriers are charging a per-message fee and reaping the benefits in their balance sheets. According to statistics cited by Zweig, German cell phone users swapped 1.8 billion SMS in December alone. In the United Kingdom, nearly a billion SMS were exchanged during the same time period.

"They are still competing with SMS," which has become wildly popular, she said. "Carriers will have to migrate their customers to instant messaging."

There is also a question of necessity. Companies are already creating software that lets cell phone users send messages to each other. There are companies that are creating software to allow for different phone users to send each other instant messages.

One is a company called TCS in Seattle, which Zweig said came out with software that lets users of Sprint's wireless services send messages to Verizon customers.

Another company in this market is MessageVine, which just won a contract to offer a customized wireless instant messaging service to Deutsche Telecom.

MessageVine Vice President Susan Bidel says there is already a group trying to work on instant messaging issues, called IMUnified. But that is a collection of companies like Excite and Yahoo, which have their own instant messaging services.

"At least this (the Ericsson/Nokia/Motorola initiative) is a collection of technology vendors with a very distinct focus," she said.

Thursday's deal is not the first time the major names in the cellular industry have banded together. Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia all are partners in Symbian, a joint venture between the wireless industry and several software companies such as Sun Microsystems, RSA Security and Lernout & Hauspie to develop operating systems for so-called smartphones and to champion related standards.