It all began with a little search engine that could. Then, as we Googled away, other applications appeared - news, maps, email and a desktop organizer. As of today, you needn't leave the comfort of Google for even a gab with your friends.
With the expected launch of Google Talk, its new instant messaging program with voice-over-Internet capabilities, the company once viewed as the antithesis of Microsoft is another step closer to cyber world domination.
"To get ... instant messaging into the picture, it's just another step along the way of kind of being a complete destination," said Jon Arnold, a telecom consultant with an interest in VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, which allows phone conversations over information networks such as the Internet).
Google's e-business model has so far spun its popularity as a search engine into advertising dollars like none other, Arnold says. Its email, news, and mapping services are already giving other services a run for their PayPal credits, despite its late entry into those arenas. Last week, the company launched Google Sidebar, a desktop search and organization application. That was punctuated by the announcement of plans to raise $4 billion in a secondary stock offering - which some analysts speculated could be used to fund far-flung projects such as Internet telephony.
And now, Google Talk is being released in a beta test version (a preliminary version launched to test for bugs and solicit user feedback) for Windows 2000 and Windows XP. It will be available to users who have or sign up for an account with the company's free Gmail email system. The voice chat requires that both the caller and recipient have speakers and a microphone hooked up to their computers. The new Google program features a basic user interface with few graphics, much like the main Google search site.
"We'll have an uncluttered interface that allows you to search over your contacts pretty easily," said Georges Harik, director of product management at Google. "It just stays out of your way unless you want to connect to someone."
Google based its software on the Jabber open standard (a list of publicly available technical specifications for instant messaging software), which will work with smaller networks that are based on the same technology. Text messages can be exchanged with users of Apple Computer Inc.'s iChat, Cerulean Studios' Trillian and the open-source Gaim program.
Google also is inviting programmers to build its technology into their software, including computer games.
With Google Talk, the company hopes to capture a potentially huge audience. AOL's messaging program has about 41.6 million U.S. users, followed by Yahoo Messenger with 19.1 million and MSN Messenger with 14.1 million, according to ComScore Media Metrix's July report.
"Once you can bring voice (and) messaging together, you've really got the consumer pretty tied up," Harik added, "and then that advertising model that Google has done so well with can really be taken to a whole other level."
Tied up is about right. During her holidays, Dawn Verhart, 27, of Toronto spends 12 hours a day signed into Microsoft's MSN Messenger. The Richmond Hill special education teacher has been typing conversations with her friends and family for eight years via text-based instant messaging, first with ICQ (now owned by AOL), and now with MSN. Her contact list includes her sister and brother-in-law in the U.S., who met via instant messaging, and about 30 other people all over southern Ontario.
"I'll go by (my computer) and see who's on and if there's anybody I want to talk to, I'll talk to them," she explains. She likes the fact that she can tell if people are available. "It's cheaper, too, than long-distance phone calls."
Harik said Google has no intention of trying to become a popular bridge to the other major instant-messaging providers. "We're not going to do anything like force other networks to inter-operate with us."
But without compatibility with programs such as MSN and Yahoo Messenger, sceptics argue it will be difficult to get users like Verhart to switch from established programs.
She agrees. "I think people like just using what they know," Verhart said, explaining she switched to MSN from ICQ because most of her friends were on MSN.
However, outside developers who incorporate Google Talk into their programs might try to enable such inter-operability.
Whether or not that happens, Arnold thinks good voice features could potentially win users over from text-dominated messaging programs like MSN and Yahoo Messenger. "They have modest capabilities to do voice, but they don't have really good capabilities to do voice."
He said the recent success of Skype, a VoIP service that has gone from 2 million to 47 million users since the start of 2004, illustrates the potential. And he added with Google's business might and know-how, the company's late entry into the messaging and VoIP world might not be a serious handicap.
"It's all right to be late to the party when so little money has been made," he said. "The voice game is still very early days."
Unlike Internet phone services such as Vonage and Skype, Google's voice service does not support calls to the regular telephone system.
On the other hand, Arnold notes, "Google is a much bigger name than Skype." Almost everyone has used Google, and that might make them willing to give Google Talk a try.
"Google's got some good things," said Verhart, "so if it's up to the same standard as their search engines and their map programs, it's probably okay."
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