Has IM Innovation Peaked?

Commentary: Lots of buzz in the public instant messaging space but there's still an empty feeling inside my buddy list, writes Internetnews.com's Ryan Naraine.

What a noisy last few weeks in the public instant messaging space. Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo all rolled out new product upgrades, all of them promising to reinvent the popular text-chat application.

Of the three, AOL's ICQ and Yahoo's YIM platforms continue to push the innovation envelope with nifty features that turn instant messaging into a larger pipe shuttling relevant and useful content to consumers.

“.For a sense of what's missing among the Big Three, just look at the fun things happening around the Jabber protocol and the Trillian community.”
On the surface, additional features such as interactive IMvironments and radio (Yahoo), weather content (AIM) and subscription-based games (MSN) paint a bright picture for the evolution of the communication medium. But there's a lingering -- and legitimate — worry that IM innovation has peaked, especially on the consumer side. And it doesn't have to be that way.

It seems that expanding beyond text and video chatting remains the sole discretion of the Big Three. Take ICQ's recent release of an API for developers.

In theory, an API in the hands of third-party developers should lead to limitless IM add-ons. But the API remains limited to partners handpicked by AOL, effectively clamping the kind of community-driven coding that makes Mozilla, eBay, Google or Amazon popular.

Google found a way to XMPP is an XML-based protocol, IM can be extended to do unlimited things without breaking compatibility. Developers are piggybacking on the existing mechanism to add payloads that handle IM alerts for every conceivable piece of data.

An IT network admin can theoretically use Jabber to handle an IM alert for malicious hacker activity. Or the casual developer could write code to fetch data such as sports scores, weather updates — or communicate any bit of information back to a server.

Trillian, the multi-network client that lets users connect to AIM, YIM, MSN, ICQ, IRC and Jabber, provides another classic example of user-driven innovation. Long before RSS content aggregation became a buzzword in the industry, Trillian had an RSS feed plug-in. Want to know the time in Australia, India and Brazil simultaneously? There's a Trillian plug-in to fetch that data. Does the language barrier block you from IMing with a Spanish-speaking business contact or love interest? Trillian has a text translation plug-in. Mix a little openness with a community rabid about IM technology and watch how fast it evolves.

Like with everything else, it's a matter of making money. Instant messaging took off a few years ago, especially at the workplace but the media companies never could figure out how to monetize what was essentially a free service.”
This isn't to say Yahoo and MSN have not pushed the envelope. Yahoo's new messenger beta is a pretty slick upgrade. I rather liked the Launch radio add-on that provides a passive listening experience without the annoyance of media players or browser launches. Interactive IMvironments fetching baseball scores within an IM window — now that's something I can get used to.

"The timing is right to try to push content into IM. I'm not too sure if consumers will like it but that's just the way media companies think," said Rafat Ali, publisher of the PaidContent.org blog. "Any communications tool becomes a place to push content. That has happened with e-mail and cell phones and it's now happening with IM."

IM for the Money
Like with everything else, it's a matter of making money. Instant messaging took off a few years ago, especially at the workplace but the media companies never could figure out how to monetize what was essentially a free service. But now, with broadband adoption increasing, companies are a lot bolder about doing new things like multimedia (voice and video integration), application integration, bot-creation, wireless (SMS) features and a heavy focus on securing the IM platform.

The Big Three have also played around a bit with presence-management and IM alerts but I still get the sense that true innovation is missing, because the wider developer community has been locked out.

You don't have to give away the keys to the farm to embrace developers. Look at what the availability of an open API has done for business at eBay and Amazon.com. If you find creative ways of empowering developers, innovation will flow.

Ryan Naraine is a senior editor at Internetnews.com.






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