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Will IM ever kick off its shackles?

It's long been time for the instant-messaging walls to come down, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper. But that's not likely anytime soon.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
Hanging around entrepreneurial, creative types for too long and I actually start believing there can be better ways to go about personal computing.

Silly me.

On Thursday, I spent a good part of the day with software entrepreneurs from Israel. The overwhelming majority were part of bootstrap operations but each had come up with an intriguing take--their One Big Idea, if you will--on how to make life easier for computer users. And if there was one common theme it was a shared belief that they had found a better, more satisfying approach to personal computing.

Maybe that tack one day will spill over to inform the tactics and strategies pursued by the sales and marketing sharpies who run most tech companies these days. That's the optimist in me talking. The pessimist counters that the incumbent powers-that-be will innovate on behalf of customers only when forced by new rivals. That's not always the case, but it is when the subject is instant messaging.

The status quo is analogous to the early days of the phone business when you couldn't call between phone providers.

Users still run into old barriers erected between instant-messaging services as an axis of interests has forged distinct two camps: Since late last year, Google users have been able to sign onto AOL Instant Messenger through Gmail (Google owns 5 percent of AOL). For their part, Yahoo and Microsoft IM users have been able to communicate with each other since July 2006. After then, the electronic-communications highway runs into a brick wall. When it comes to instant messaging, AOL doesn't talk with Microsoft, Microsoft doesn't talk with Google, and Google doesn't talk with Yahoo.

So much for putting computer users front and center.

OK, I'm being snarky, but who doesn't understand this has to change? The status quo is analogous to the early days of the phone business when you couldn't call between phone providers. I've got to believe we've learned a few things in the intervening century since then.

"It really has to go the way e-mail goes," Dan Casey, a product manager at Microsoft for Windows Live, told me. "We all rationally believe that."

He's right. Unless the walls come down, you can forget about IM ever approximating that sort of ubiquity. So why keep clinging to an outdated conception? In a word, myopia. This Cyber Gang of Four still views instant messaging as a moneymaking platform for advertising and other stuff they can piggyback onto their IM clients.

For a while, I thought services like Trillian on the PC or Adium on the Macintosh could exploit the desire among so many people for cross-service interoperability. As of late last year, there were nearly 35 million Trillian downloads from our sister site CNET Download.com. Still, that's a veritable drop in the IM bucket. Besides, why should users need to sacrifice features or a preferred interface in order to send instant messages to someone using a different client?

Time Warner boss Jeffrey Bewkes has bigger things on his mind these days than the future of instant messaging. He has to revive a company still feeling the aftereffects of a disastrous merger with America Online. Meanwhile the snarling between Microsoft (maybe soon "Microsoft-Yahoo") and Google gets worse. Translation: I wouldn't be overly confident of an IM breakthrough any time soon. That's not to say I'm not still hoping.

On a scale of 1 to 10--with 10 being the equivalent of a naked wrestling match with Mothra--this obviously is not the most urgent computer problem the tech industry ever had to resolve. But it is as annoying as it is eminently fixable.