Has IM Innovation Peaked?
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What a noisy last few weeks in the public instant
messaging space. Microsoft
all rolled out new product upgrades, all of them promising to reinvent the popular text-chat application.
Of the three, AOL's ICQ and Yahoo's YIM platforms continue to push the innovation envelope with nifty features that turn instant messaging into a larger pipe shuttling relevant and useful content to consumers.
On the surface, additional features such as interactive IMvironments and radio (Yahoo), weather content (AIM) and subscription-based games (MSN) paint a bright picture for the evolution of the communication medium. But there's a lingering -- and legitimate -- worry that IM innovation has peaked, especially on the consumer side. And it doesn't have to be that way.
In theory, an API
Google found a way to flirt with Web developers without giving up its IP farm. Yet AOL remains skittish about fully embracing the wider community, especially after giving up on Netscape/Mozilla development and not quite understanding the power in its Winamp community.
For a sense of what's missing among the Big Three, just look at the fun things happening around the Jabber protocol and the Trillian community. Because Jabber's XMPP
An IT network admin can theoretically use Jabber to handle an IM alert for malicious hacker activity. Or the casual developer could write code to fetch data such as sports scores, weather updates -- or communicate any bit of information back to a server.
Trillian, the multi-network client that lets users connect to AIM, YIM, MSN, ICQ, IRC and Jabber, provides another classic example of user-driven innovation. Long before RSS
This isn't to say Yahoo and MSN have not pushed the envelope. Yahoo's new messenger beta is a pretty slick upgrade. I rather liked the Launch radio add-on that provides a passive listening experience without the annoyance of media players or browser launches. Interactive IMvironments fetching baseball scores within an IM window -- now that's something I can get used to.
"The timing is right to try to push content into IM. I'm not too sure if consumers will like it but that's just the way media companies think," said Rafat Ali, publisher of the PaidContent.org blog. "Any communications tool becomes a place to push content. That has happened with e-mail and cell phones and it's now happening with IM."
Like with everything else, it's a matter of making money. Instant messaging took off a few years ago, especially at the workplace but the media companies never could figure out how to monetize what was essentially a free service. But now, with broadband adoption increasing, companies are a lot bolder about doing new things like multimedia (voice and video integration), application integration, bot-creation, wireless (SMS) features and a heavy focus on securing the IM platform.
The Big Three have also played around a bit with presence-management and IM alerts but I still get the sense that true innovation is missing, because the wider developer community has been locked out.
You don't have to give away the keys to the farm to embrace developers. Look at what the availability of an open API has done for business at eBay
. If you find creative ways of empowering developers, innovation will flow.