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Yahoo Messenger encroaches on Facebook turf

Pingbox application from Yahoo lets you chat with visitors to your Facebook page using Yahoo's IM service.

At left, Yahoo's Pingbox application on my Facebook page. In center, the resulting instant message chat through Yahoo Messenger.
At left, Yahoo's Pingbox application on my Facebook page. At right, the resulting instant message chat through Yahoo Messenger. (Click to enlarge.) screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

SUNNYVALE, Calif.--Facebook has a Web-based instant-messaging application, but Yahoo wants to one-up the social networking site with an application called Pingbox that lets Facebook users chat with widely used Yahoo Messenger technology instead.

In 2008, Yahoo released a version of Pingbox that would let people put an IM widget on their pages at Friendster, Xanga, hi5, LiveJournal, MySpace, and Google's Blogger sites. It was harder work to build the Pingbox application for Facebook but now that's available too.

With Pingbox set up, anyone who visits your Facebook page sees a chat window that invites them to send a message. Doing so initiates a chat through Yahoo Messenger--but you have to be using Messenger version 8.1 or the current 9.0.

Facebook has its own instant-messaging service, but it doesn't launch a pop-up window or desktop notification when somebody sends a message, so it's not obvious when people use it.

"We realized you could have Facebook sitting in a tab all day long and you'll never notice whether they IM you," Samir Mehta, senior product messenger on Yahoo Messenger Team, said in an interview at Yahoo's headquarters here.

Samir Mehta
Samir Mehta Stephen Shankland/CNET News

My testing of Pingbox showed it works as advertised. Setting it up was easy enough, and after doing so a "facebook pingbox" group appeared in my Yahoo Messenger contacts list. When initiating a chat, Pingbox asked me to identify myself, and that username appeared in the Pingbox group on Yahoo Messenger.

There is a limitation to the Facebook application compared with the other versions, though. Because Facebook doesn't run Flash applications automatically, visitors to the must manually click the application to start it.

One interesting element of Pingbox is that messages can only be seen in Yahoo Messenger, not other services such as Digsby, Meebo, Trillian, or Pidgin. "We don't interoperate with third parties. You have to be using one of our clients," Mehta said.

That's a drag for those of us who have to reckon with multiple non-interoperable instant messaging networks. But it probably makes sense for Yahoo as it tries to wire its Internet properties together socially. Yahoo Messenger is one key communications hub, and it's a component of the Yahoo Open Strategy.

The setup process requires you to authenticate yourself on Yahoo's network. After that, it lets you set a color scheme and welcome message, then offers a choice of a smaller or larger version for your Facebook page. The trickiest part: after you save your settings, be sure to actually activate it by clicking the button in the yellow bar at the top of the screen labeled "Add Yahoo Messenger Pingbox to your profile."