Now, Google Is Tackling Talk

The search giant will launch instant-messaging and Net-telephony products that promise to work with existing services -- if AOL and others agree

By Arik Hesseldahl

Add yet another offering, actually two, from Google (GOOG ) that takes the search giant even further beyond its find-anything-on-the-Web roots. On Aug. 24 it announced a broad-ranging effort to attack both the instant-messaging and Internet voice-calling markets with a service called Google Talk.

Available as a software download, the service could turn the long-divided IM market on its ear by creating the potential for interoperability not only with offerings from established players, including Time Warner's (TWX ) America Online, Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN, and Yahoo! (YHOO ), but also with lesser-known services such as Trillian, Apple Computer's (AAPL ) iChat, and GAIM, an IM client for Linux users.

Georges Harik, Google's director of product management, says the company has opened communications with AOL and Yahoo, offering them interoperability on the Google Talk network free, and it will soon contact Microsoft. It remains to be seen whether these big players, especially AOL, which runs both its AOL Instant Messenger service and the globally popular ICQ service, will take Google up on its offer.


  "Our network will be open. We want to make all instant messaging networks interoperable," Harik says. Users of other IM clients would be able to connect friends to Google Talk just by adding their Gmail user names. No agreements have been struck yet. "We don't know what their reaction will be," Harik says.

Google does have one willing IM partner: Earthlink (ELNK ). The Atlanta-based Internet service provider recently debuted an IM and voice-calling software of its own called Vling. Google and Earthlink have committed to making their software interoperable, says Earthlink executive Stephen Currie. "The compatibility won't be available right away," Curries says. "But we're working on it."

One thing Harik says Google Talk won't have is advertising. "You have to be careful about advertising with IM," he says. "It's not necessarily the right platform to insert advertisements." Yet it's an important question for all the IM players because although millions of people use IM, so far it has yet to be a significant profit center for any of the services.


  With the launch of its IM software, Google also plans to become an important force in the growing market for Internet-based voice calls. Harik says Google is looking seriously at adding technical support for SIP, or session initiation protocol, an industry standard used to make phone calls over the Internet. When it adds the support, its network would become compatible with such Net-telephony services as Vonage, SIPphone, and others that use SIP.

Google is already "deep into conversations" with ISP Earthlink and SIPphone, a San Diego-based Internet-calling startup launched by Michael Robertson, the entrepreneur behind a consumer-friendly version of Linux called Linspire.

Although it's not compatible with Skype, one of the biggest Net-telephony currently, Robertson says SIPphone's Gizmo Project service already has 250,000 customers and that it interoperates with 20 different voice services, primarily those of smaller players such as Global Village and Earthlink. "Google is working on the SIP interchange," Robertson says. "And we're working on it with them."


  Google Talk will be tightly intertwined with Gmail, Google's 16-month-old free Web-based e-mail service, known for its unlimited capacity to store messages. Gmail has been in a wide public beta-test for that entire time, open only to users who get invited by other users. The service now has more than 2 million users, Harik says.

But starting today, invites are no longer needed to get a Gmail account. In a separate announcement, Google says it will take the wraps off the service for users in the U.S. Gmail will be open and free to U.S. users but will require that they use a mobile phone capable of receiving text messages to prove they're legitimate users. When they sign up, Harik says, Google will send their phone a text message. While it may not be fail-safe, Harik says the measure is an effort to minimize Gmail being used by spammers and for other types of abuse.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Beth Belton

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