Be careful what you wish for. For nearly a decade I, and a lot of people like me, have been dreaming of the day when we could send an instant message to someone who wasn’t on the network as us. An instant messaging program is one that sits on your computer and allows you to send short text messages to other Internet users in real time — if they are online they see the message as soon as you’ve sent it. it’s faster than email because they get it straightaway, and it has the added bonus of letting you know whether the other person is at their computer and awake. Hence the name instant messaging. The big players, like Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google all have their own programs and networks, with millions of users. The services are free but beam ads at users through the software.
Now here’s the rub: Because there are no open standards, most instant messenger users can only trade messages with others using the same program. So if I signed up with ICQ, say, I won’t be able to chat with Aunt Marge if she only signed up with Yahoo. It’s a bit like only being able to send emails to people who use the same email service as yourself. Or only to make phone calls to other people using the same operator.
I’m not going to get into who’s to blame for all this. For the past few years I’ve been using a program that lets me include all my chat accounts in one small program, so I can talk to anyone on any service without having to run four or five different chat programs. No ads and less clutter on my screen. Yes, I do feel slightly bad using software that leaches off other people’s work, but if those other people can’t solve my communication problems with Aunt Marge I had to find someone who could.
But as instant messaging has grown, the arguments against fencing users of each system in have grown weaker. Instant messaging is no longer the province of teenagers: it’s as popular in business now as it is in the home, and many a market deal from London to Seoul has been done over instant messenger. Not only that: and the rise of voice over internet services like Skype, which include instant text messaging features, and the introduction of video chat, mean the clamor for interoperability has become harder to ignore.
Hence the recent announcement that Yahoo and Microsoft have started a test run of allowing users of their services to swap messages. This is a big step forward, although it’s noticeable that AOL, by far the biggest player in all this with their ICQ and AIM services, aren’t yet joining the party. Still, it’s good news. But there’s a sneaking worry about it all this. Why has it taken them so long? And why now? In reality, hard commercial reasons lie behidn the decision. It’s not just about helping me send a message to Aunt Marge on another network. In the recent words of Niall Kennedy (thanks, BJ Gillette), program managers at Microsoft, it’s about gathering information about us as we chat and surf so that the companies can target better ads at us. Quite reasonable for them to want to do, I suppose, but one more reason for me to be a tad suspicious about what I say or do online. For now I’m sticking with my third party, ad-free, leaching program.