Jun 30, 2006

The Instant Messaging battle

Consider this - how would it be if you could send an email only to another user on the same domain? Or you could call a subscriber on the same telephone network alone? Not many would welcome the idea, but that is how it is now with Instant Messaging.

Instant Messaging is a must-have tool in a world that runs on real-time. If you can't communicate now, better forget it. But all the big operators that provide IM services right now - MSN, Yahoo, AOL and Gmail prefer to use proprietary standards and that means communicating within their own network and only that. So, even if you are a regular Yahoo! IM user but has a friend on MSN, one of you two would have to register with the other's service to communicate. Had the operators been charging for new registrations, you wouldn't quite fancy that option, would you?

Metcalfe's law (also referred to as the Network Effect) states that value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of users. What it essentially conveys is that the more the number of people using the same system, the better for everyone. You wouldn't need different softwares, different protocols and all the difficulties that come with them. Then why are they all still separate?

Of course there are numerous apps out there that can work with the different services, but still they are all running on different systems, and no standard has yet been defined. On the other hand, take IRC(Internet Relay Chat). Although now made obsolete by the more interactive and graphical substitutes offered by MSN, Yahoo and the like, IRC is an open system. Any user with an IRC client can connect to the server, and chat - it is as simple as that. It supports one of the basic tenets of the Internet that its founders dreamt of - accessibility. The more modern versions of IM do not. And that is a big problem.

If only the big IM services would just sit together and agree on a common standard, one which would work transparently and all the users in a single database, just imagine the value of the network as proposed by Metcalfe's law.

P.S: There are practical difficulties, of course, of uniting all these user bases into a single one, like overlapping usernames and database considerations, but technology has come so far, can't we work something out?