Search giant unveils Google Talk, an IM program that also allows voice chat. Plus: Cast your vote on Talk. Images: Google Talk
Google's Web site late Tuesday provided a link to download Google Talk and stated that the software "enables you to call or send instant messages to your friends for free-?anytime, anywhere in the world." Google's messaging program is linked to the company's Web-based e-mail program, Gmail, and both are in a beta, or test, phase.
While Google Talk was expected, some industry observers questioned what innovation Google could add to lure loyal users and their millions of buddies away from established instant-messaging applications.
One advantage to Google Talk could be its ability to connect with users of competing services. The service is based on the Jabber open-source standard, which allows consumers to connect with other messaging systems that work with Jabber, such as Apple Computer's iChat, GAIM, Adium, Trillian Pro and Psi.
Google Talk currently works only on Windows, according to Google's Web site. Users need a microphone and a speaker to take advantage of the voice capabilities.
The company's moves are a further sign of its expansive ambitions in the face of growing competition from rivals Yahoo, AOL and MSN. The launch comes one day after Google rolled out a beta version of its free desktop software, Desktop 2, that includes a personalized toolbar dubbed "Sidebar" for accessing e-mail, stock quotes and news, as well as a scratch pad for taking notes and tools for searching the desktop and Microsoft Outlook in-box.
The company, which last week announced plans to raise $4 billion in a secondary stock sale, already offers a wide variety of services beyond Web search, including Gmail, news, alerts, the Froogle shopping search engine, the Blogger service for posting blogs, desktop search, the Picasa photo-sharing software, Google Maps and Google Earth. The company has reportedly been looking into buying up unused fiber optic and radio spectrum, as well as buying .
It makes sense for Google to come up with additional ways to attract users and keep them on the Google Web site longer, said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch.
"In the end, I think they have to do it because in reality they are a portal, a big gateway people use to access the Web, and people seem to expect certain things from these gateways and one of them is instant messaging," he said.
But Google faces an uphill battle to win converts from the leaders in instant messaging--AOL's AIM, Yahoo Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger--whose members will no doubt be resistant to switch their buddy lists to a new IM service, Sullivan said.
Google Talk users can't use the program to talk with users of AIM, MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger. An IM service is only useful if a user has other people to communicate with.
After playing with Google Talk, Sullivan gave it strong marks for sound quality but said it lacked video chat, which Yahoo offers, andcomplained that it doesn't index and make searchable text chats as Google Desktop does for AOL and MSN Messenger chats.
"That had better change--and soon--if Google is serious about winning people over. Or at least winning me," Sullivan wrote in an article on Search Engine Watch.
"Unlike some past Google products, like Google Maps or Gmail, Google Talk does not seem to 'pull a Google' as I like to call (it) in rewriting what we expect from an application or service," he wrote. "No 'wow' feature jumps out at me or Gary Price, Search Engine Watch's news editor who worked with me on the story."
AOL leads the pack in instant messaging, with about 41.6 million users, followed by about 19 million using Yahoo Messenger and 14 million using MSN Messenger, according to ComScore Media Metrix.
"Unless the Google tool can talk to AOL, it's going to be a pain" for users, Sullivan added.
Both AIM and MSN Messenger enable voice chat. And earlier this month, Yahoo began allowing its IM users to make phone calls through the service, in what many see as a challenge to popular VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) provider Skype.
David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Research, said he understood the business reasons behind Google wanting to offer instant messaging, but questioned what the search company could add to the technology that would entice enough users to the service to make it competitive.
"I'm puzzled to imagine what is going to be the unique Google-ness of an instant-messaging product," he said. "I don't think the world needs another one."
John Battelle, who wrote a book on Web search that will be published in September, said he believes IM is a "no brainer." "IM ties folks to a platform, and that's what Google is building with Desktop et al. VoIP is another possibility," he wrote in his blog.
Other bloggers also were waiting to see what Google's twist would be on instant messaging.
"Hmmm...Google Talk; VoIP and IM. Since Yahoo and Skype also offer similar offerings I'm wondering what Google may do to spice up Google Talk a bit. You know, something that will Google-fy it," wrote Search Engine Journal editor Loren Baker. "Perhaps serving search results and Web clips related to conversations? AdSense ads relevant to conversations which pick up the bill for VoIP to phone calls? Photo sharing and file sharing via the already available Google-owned Hello messaging program?...Google, time to speak up; the world is listening."
Google declined to comment. (Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET News.com reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.)