Throughout 2005, rumours were constantly floating around about Google's entry into the instant messaging market. In August of the same year, the domain talk.google.com was discovered by inquisitive Internet users and found to be hosting a Jabber server, live and ready for use. Jabber is an open protocol based on XML, designed to be interoperable and extensible. The next day Google announced their instant messenger “Google Talk”, and offered up their custom client for download.

Features

Google Talk is essentially a standard Jabber service, providing access to anybody with a Gmail account (which is practically everybody on the 'net these days, despite the previously exclusive invite-only registration system). You can access it via any Jabber client, although these don't integrate with the extra services Google are offering – namely Gmail notification and free Internet voice calls, the service's main selling point. Conversations are not encrypted, and server-to-server communication facilities are unavailable, meaning that users can't talk to people on other Jabber servers. Furthermore, gateways to popular IM services such as MSN Messenger and AIM are not provided, and as such users of these services are forced to run multiple IM clients (unless they access these services through a multiple service IM client such as Trillian, GAIM or Miranda IM).

Response to the service has generally been critical – people are underwhelmed by this new service in comparison to Google's impressive new technologies such as Google Earth and Gmail. However, due to the power of Google branding, the service is gaining popularity, and users remain hopeful that the service and client will develop and expand.

Client

In true Google style, the client is minimal and functional. It offers a simple white interface with the trademark Google logo and coloured text hovering above the contact list, with a familiar search bar allowing you to search your contacts (should you be popular enough not to be able to find somebody in your long list of friends!). Unfortunately the search bar seems to be a token effort rather than a useful feature – unlike Gmail's extensive archiving, Google Talk only retains a few history items, and it isn't possible to search these. Integration with Gmail is strong however – e-mail alerts pop up as soon as you receive new mail, and a link to your inbox is provided within the client.

The voice messaging functionality is the client's strongest asset. Even on a dial-up connection, conversations are clear and don't suffer from drop outs or disconnections. Certainly the service outdoes its competitors here, and with rumours of deals with other VoIP services which may provide land-line calls, Google is likely to beat all competitors like the all-conquering behemoth it's gradually becoming.

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Talk, http://www.google.com/talk/

Google Talk is an IM/VoIP service developed by Google and released on 24 August 20051. Although Google also released a client program for the service2, the network uses the XMPP protocol (also used by Jabber), which means that any client capable of connecting to the Jabber network (including names like Adium, Trillian, Miranda and GAIM) can also use Google Talk. At the time of writing, however, Google Talk users cannot talk directly to Jabber users on other servers. Anyone with a GMail account can sign in right away using their address and password, and everyone on their contact list for GMail is automatically added to their contact list for Google Talk.

Bells and Whistles

So what does Google Talk have? Apart from being an IM service, Google have integrated Voice Over IP and GMail notification into their official client, although those connecting through third-party clients won't get access to these features. File transfer may be added at a later date, but is currently not supported. Additionally, there have been reports that it is possible to run a virtual whiteboard service over Google Talk using the Java-based IM client Coccinella.3

The New Kid on the Block

So what's all the fuss about? On the surface, it doesn't seem like much - Google have released their own flavour of Jabber into "the mess that is the Instant Messaging world"4, which already has three major players (Microsoft's MSN Messenger, Yahoo's Yahoo Instant Messenger and the joint forces of AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ under America Online) and a number of smaller protocols. But Google have the force of reputation and mindshare on their side. Their last project, GMail, "polished up webmail and turned it into a first-class net citizen"4, and was undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the subsequent upping of storage space for Hotmail and Yahoo users5.

The problem with entering a balkanised world like Instant Messaging is that you need to build up a sufficient base of users before things really start to get going. The more users on your network, the more likely your network is to attract users. In other words:

If you buy a hammer, it doesn't become more valuable when your neighbor also buys one, excepting that he's less likely to want to borrow yours. However, when your neighbor buys a telephone, your telephone is more valuable because there's one more person it can reach.6

The Network Effect, as it is known, is why there are only three IM services with any sizable market share, and why they will probably continue to have that market share for the foreseeable future, unless something weird happens.

Google Talk may well be that weird thing waiting to happen.

So Google needs to get a bunch of users on its service and quickly before the hype dies down. What can it do? It's already done something by giving GMail users a free account - everyone who hopped on the GMail bandwagon has had their transition to Google Talk made that much easier simply by not needing to sign up. It can also hope that everyone remembers the success of GMail and hops on the bandwagon early this time. Finally, Google has suggested itself that it's looking at "federating" with other IM/VoIP providers in order that customers of the services may talk to each other:

Service choice is something you have with email and, for the most part, with your regular phone service today. This means that regardless of whom you choose as your email service provider (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, your school or ISP, etc), you can email anyone who is using another service provider...Unfortunately, the same is not true with most popular IM and VOIP networks today. If the people you want to talk to are all on different IM/VOIP services, you need to sign up for an account on each service and connect to each service to talk to them. We plan to partner with other willing service providers to enable federation of our services. This means that a user on one service can communicate with users on another service without needing to sign up for, or sign in with, each service.7

Of course, the Big Three have already thought about this a couple of times6, although nothing has come of it yet. Other parties have managed to get halfway there with multi-protocol applications like Trillian or Adium, but they don't actually threaten the IM companies. Google, on the other hand, have the mindshare and the reputation to start something that could possibly change the market in a big way. If they manage to get support for other protocols into their client as well, it may spell the start of the end for the individual IM services.

Some Months Later...

Or at least, so it goes in theory. I wrote most of this writeup in August, just after Google Talk's release, when every second blog seemed to be running on an article on it. It's now mid-November, and Google Talk seems to have vanished into thin air. The promised official clients for Linux and Mac OS haven't surfaced, VoIP services like Skype are still going strong, and people are still using MSN or AIM or whatever service they used before Google Talk came out. Very few people I know are using Google Talk, and most who do already have three or four accounts on different services and are just using it as yet another backup service.

But what happened to Google's plans to dominate the IM market?

It seems that although Google's mindshare was sufficient enough to get their service out there and noticed in the first place, it just wasn't enough to get people using it instead of their primary IM client. If we look at GMail, the Gigabyte of memory for email storage and searchable database were a big leap up from other free email services like Hotmail, but Google Talk doesn't offer any significant advantages over its competitors. It seems that people saw no purpose in switching, and Google Talk just faded away after the novelty had gone.

Update 22/12/2005: Well, it turns out that Google have been doing something with Google Talk. They recently invested $1 billion in AOL, and as part of that investment AOL and Google Talk will start communicating with each other, "provided certain conditions are met"8. Is this the beginning of a golden age of instant messaging, now that AIM, ICQ and Google Talk users can all talk to each other? We can but wait and see...

Update 20/01/05: And now it seems Google Talk have "flipped the switch" and opened up to the Jabber network as well9. It seems that Google are serious with this "federation" business.


1. BBC: Google sets tongues wagging with Talk
2. Google Talk
3. Coccinella and Google Talk: Being Ernest
4. Nugget: On Google Talk, I apparently talk a lot
5. PC World: Hotmail Storage Jumps to 250MB
6. Drunkenblog: 1,2,3,4 -- I Declare IM War
7. Google Talk: Developer Notes
8. Download Squad: Google Talk to work with AIM
9. DrunkenBlog: Of Google Talk, Jabber/XMPP, and putting a candle in the window

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