Instant Messages Going Wireless

As cell phones, handheld computers, and set-top boxes like WebTV hook up to the 'Net, instant messaging is primed to go beyond the PC.

The worldwide market for instant messaging will grow to 175 million users (PC and non-PC combined) by 2002, according to market research firm Mobile Insights. That's up 250 percent from the 50 million PC users today.

By 2002, desktop PCs will still be the dominant platform for instant messaging, but messaging on personal digital assistants like the Palm Pilot and on mobile phones will pick up dramatically, says David Hayden, senior analyst at Mobile Insights. Some 25 million instant messaging users could be on PDAs (personal digital assistants) by then, Hayden says. PDAs are gaining wireless connectivity faster than PC notebooks are, and notebooks will trail in instant messaging use.

What drives instant messaging is the desire or need to be plugged into something, Hayden says. Most notebook users connect only occasionally, like from a hotel during a business trip.

It's a Wireless World

Analysts are convinced instant messaging services will gravitate to other, non-PC devices.

"Five years from now the interface to most cell phones and wireless PDAs will include a buddy list," says Jerry Michalski, president of Sociate, an industry consulting firm. "These buddy lists will transform the way people communicate and help them to avoid the necessity of making real-time two-way phone calls to handle simple communications."

Although versions of America Online Inc.'s (AOL's) ICQ are available for the Palm Pilot and Windows CE-based handheld PCs, they have not been widely used because integrated wireless communications has been slow to spread, says Hayden at Mobile Insights.

"The Palm VII is the first of many mainstream handheld devices that will incorporate wireless data communications," he adds. "Integrated wireless communications will be the catalyst that leads to the pervasive use of mobile information appliances."

But digital communications is ripe for the ease and speed of mobile instant messaging, Hayden says. "Instant messaging provides significant advantages over other communication mediums. You don't have telephone tag -- the back and forth of waiting for someone to return your voice mail message."

What began and grew popular as a consumer chat service is now finding a use in the business world. "People are discovering business applications, such as a bunch of colleagues having an online brainstorming session," Hayden says.

Can't We All Work Together?

AOL, with its AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ, is the clear leader today with about 80 percent market share, according to Mobile Insights. Historically, each instant messaging client has been an island unto itself. AOL Instant Messenger users can't chat even with users of sibling product ICQ.

But late last month, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. released clients that could connect to AOL Instant Messenger users.

AOL promptly blocked such exchanges, noting security and other concerns. The two companies and other major instant messaging players are discussing a possible industry standard. Observers think some sort of accommodation is inevitable.

"Users clearly want it. You can't have three to five mainstream different services that don't talk to each other," Hayden says.

"It's funny because Microsoft is usually the big giant in these kinds of situations, but AOL enjoys close to a monopoly and faces a lot of competition," Hayden says. "I think they'll sort it out, and if AOL decides not to be part of a standard, the other companies will band together because this is an application where you really want interoperability."

The stakes are very high. Software developer Dave Winer, who writes a free industry newsletter called, compares instant messaging to the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) and the competition to control it.

"Instant messaging is like DNS in many ways," Winer says. "It's a name system; it binds a person to a computer. If you have control over the DNS, as Network Solutions does, you have control of the core of the Internet. Similarly, in the struggle for instant messaging, the winner, if there is one, will control real-time access to Internet users."

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