Marking perhaps its most ambitious departure to date from its core search business, Google unveiled its own instant messaging platform yesterday, one that includes voice chat options.
Some analysts say the service could become a prelude to an even bigger leap in which Google becomes a provider of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service.
Google remained mum, with a spokesman confirming yesterday that Google had a product announcement coming, but declining additional comment.
The search firm’s reluctance to talk only led to rampant speculation about what the launch might involve. While most analysts say an instant messaging product was a likely bet, some say it might go further, reaching into areas such as VoIP or even video chat.
An IM client fills a significant gap in the offerings that Google has compared to other portals, including bitter search rivals MSN and Yahoo, as well as AOL, which is being re-launched as a standalone portal and already has the most popular instant messaging client.
Since voice chat is integrated into Google’s IM tool, another target might be Skype, the person-to-person software firm that can be used for both voice and text chat and has made quite a splash in the VoIP space, particularly in Europe but increasingly in the U.S.
Open and Compatible
In taking aim at IM, Google will have its work cut out for it. America Online counts some 40 million users of its two IM brands in the U.S., with AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, wildly popular among younger users, and ICQ still favored by many other users for its interoperability. Yahoo runs second with 20 million users of its IM client and Microsoft boasts about 14 million users of is MSN Messenger software, according to comScore Media Metrix.
Any Google IM client would likely rely heavily on open source technologies, according to analysts. According to reports, the system uses the Jabber open source technology, an important fact, because Jabber can work with several leading IM systems, including AOL’s ICQ and iChat, Apple’s IM client.
John Battelle, an independent search analyst and the author of an upcoming book on Google, said the speculation ranged from a basic IM client to some type of free WiFi service or full-blown VoIP. IM, he added, is “a no-brainer.”
“IM ties folks to a platform, and that’s what Google is building,” Battelle told the E-Commerce Times.
Search Engine Journal editor Loren Baker wrote in her blog that whatever the specific announcement, it appears to be “big news.”
Given Google’s penchant for public relations ploys — witness the April Fool’s Day launch of Gmail — Baker noted that today is the anniversary of the date that Thomas Edison filed a patent for the moving picture, which gave some weight to the rumor that the IM client would have a video element, which would have put it ahead of some rival technologies.
“Could Google be adding video capabilities to its Google Talk Messenger that would make the software worth downloading and using?” Baker asked. “Google needs to give users a unique or semi-unique offering to get them using the software and to calm their nerves about advertising targeted to messaging or chat conversations, their location, Web behavior and so on. Easy video chat capabilities could be that answer.”
Google has been said to be eyeing many new business areas, from rumors that it’s developing its own browser to reports that suggest it is interested in becoming a domain registrar or a Web hosting concern.
Speculation about what Google might do next was fueled last week when the company registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission for the right to sell some 14 million shares of stock. The resulting $4 billion in cash that Google stands to gain may become fodder for acquisitions, analysts said, though there is little agreement about what type of buy might make the most sense for Google at this time.
Meanwhile, rarely do consecutive days pass without Google announcing a new product or feature. This week has already seen the debut of Google’s second pass at the desktop search realm, a tool that features a “sidebar” that displays various online and search information.