By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Communication is a funny thing. Living in Southeast Asia in the 1980s I'd type out letters in the enveloping heat, making carbon copies -- confident the original would never arrive -- and fight my way to the post office past beggars, pickpockets and expat financial-services salesmen, just to stay in touch. Now I have a handphone, e-mail and fax and I can barely talk my thumbs into tapping out a text message home once in a while. It may just be me, but I suspect the harder it is to stay in touch, the better we are at it.
One phenomenon that has bucked this trend is Internet messaging. ICQ was revolutionary when it first popped up in 1996 via an Israeli company called Mirabilis. The first time I used it to send a message to my friend Jim across the South China Sea was mind-blowing.
Now ICQ has been snapped up by AOL and boasts some 127 million users -- a sign that people seem to want to stay in touch. For those of us with friends and family in different time zones, such programs are a good way to exchange casual greetings when our on-line sessions happen to coincide.
That said, there's a downside and it must be fixed before messaging really catches on. While ICQ is by far the most popular chat program or messaging client, Microsoft also has its own, as do AOL and Yahoo. The problem is whether or not to allow users on one service to interact with users on another. So far things haven't worked out; AOL has blocked most attempts at hooking up to their users, arguing they don't want any Tom, Dick or Harry hacking into their computers.
Fair point, but in reality the issue is money: These programs spread like wildfire because they were free, and so far no one's making any money. ICQ has started discreetly adding small adverts but it's not going to make a dent in the cost of hosting tens of millions of chatty messaging folk. Until chat becomes like your mobile-phone service -- where you can be assured of reaching someone, whatever network they're on -- it's going to be a gimmick. Loading a different program for each service gets messy.
But this is where it gets interesting. Some enterprising dudes have started offering software that handles more than one service, meaning that if you have friends with Yahoo, Microsoft and ICQ accounts, for example, you can chat with them via one program. The best of these is Trillian (www.trillian.cc), written by Kevin Kurtz and Scott Werndorfer and already boasting 2 million copies.
As you can imagine, the giants aren't happy about two whippersnappers piggybacking on all their hard work. The logos of Microsoft's MSN, AOL and Yahoo are reduced to acne-like splodges inside Trillian's window and are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to users, who are just happy to be able to connect with their chums on other services.
AOL has already made its feelings known by attempting to shut out Trillian, who have spent much of the past few weeks trying to get back in.
Trillian may be small fry, but they've opened the door. AT&T launched a new version of their IM Anywhere program in February that connects to all the other services except ICQ. Fending off two guys in a bedsit may be one thing for AOL, but AT&T may be a tougher proposition.
Where is this going to take us? I'd like to see basic text messages to all services offered as a standard, with users deciding which program they use to pull all their contacts together. PalTalk, a small start-up that also connects to AOL, has found there's money in extra services like voice, video and professional chat groups.
For most, text chat is just a great way of staying in touch with people across the street or planet. Most don't care which program does it, and aren't crazy about all the extra hoopla companies try to cram in to lure folk aboard.
So just give us simple Internet messaging for free, and charge for premium services like security, messaging between handphones and Internet, or on-line collaboration for professional use. Who knows? I might even persuade my mum to sign up: It beats picking up a phone.
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