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New Google Talk Offers Instant Messaging & Voice Chat

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As widely expected, Google waded into the instant messaging space today with the debut of Google Talk, an IM client that also offers the ability to make voice calls between computers.

The entry sees Google directly competing against the much more mature clients and established user bases of competitors Yahoo and MSN, not to mention its own partner AOL. The move also opens Google up to accusations that it is way off its mission of "to organize the world's information." Heck, Google Talk doesn't even feature a box to let you search for things, as rival products from AOL, MSN and Yahoo do.

Of course, the failure to launch an instant messaging product would leave Google at a competitive disadvantage. In the end, while the company may not like the P word, but a portal Google effectively is.

Personal home pages Google has, in the form of blogs. Email it offers, in the form of Gmail. A personalized home page it gained in May. Offering instant messaging is a natural progression, something many of Google's users may want if not expect. And if Google fails to offer IM, it risks having users turn to a competitor for it.

For its part, Google believes instant messaging does fit in with its overall mission.

"We think an important part of information is communication, so we see this as a little bit of an extension of what we did with Gmail, said Georges Harik, director of product management at Google. "Sometimes you don't want to wait. You want to send it right now. This is one way to address that, as well as with voice."

Doesn't Seem To "Pull A Google" With Wow Factor

Unlike some past Google products, like Google Maps or Gmail, Google Talk does not seem to "pull a Google" as I like to call in in rewriting what we expect from an application or service. No "wow" feature jumps out at me or Gary Price, Search Engine Watch's news editor who worked with me on the story. Voice quality is supposed to be that factor -- and perhaps it is more than we're realizing. More on this below. But aside from that, there's nothing stunning.

Admittedly, I'm not an old hand at IM, not having used it much until the past year or so. But I've used both AOL's AIM service and Yahoo Messenger enough to know that Google Talk has no real bells or whistles that those are lacking.

This is also a good point to note that Search Engine Watch has no intention of suddenly diving into instant messaging coverage. If you want to learn more in depth on the subject, check out a site such as Instant Messaging Planet or read up on IM via Wikipedia's entry on it. IM isn't search, so it's not where we'll spend our time in depth.

Having said this, we'll dive in a bit this time to look at what Google offers and touch briefly on how it measures up from my and Gary's experience. Just bear in mind this is not a comprehensive feature-by-feature review, nor is it meant to be.

Text & Voice Chat

Google Talk, of course, allows instant messaging. If you're completely unfamiliar with instant messaging, it means that you can connect with someone you know, then do a textual conversation back-and-forth with them. Other IM clients offer this as well. It's the core part of IM.

Aside from textual chat, you can do voice chat. This means you can talk through the internet to anyone on your contact list, as long as they have a computer equipped with a microphone and speakers and have a broadband connection.

This is PC-to-PC calling, not voice over the internet or VoIP. In other words, you aren't going to be using Google Talk to place calls from one telephone to another or from a computer to a telephone, although that apparently may come in the future. For now, it only works between computers.

How well does it work? When I talked with someone from Google on it on Tuesday, the sound quality was great. Gary and I couldn't connect at all, however, nor could Google connect with Gary.

Gary's fault? In the end, we changed one of his settings to use a specific output device for calls rather than the default device and got it going. And absolutely -- when we talked, the sound quality for me on my end in Google was much better than with Yahoo. On Gary's end, he felt things were about the same. He also wondered if he had too many apps open for Yahoo to work properly.

Google says the voice processing system it uses is supposed to produce especially good sound quality over rivals, plus it says there's supposed to be a lot of support to avoid conflicts with firewalls.

As said, the sound quality was great to me compared to Yahoo Messenger, when talking with Gary. But I used Yahoo Messenger's voice calling earlier this month to talk with my wife while I was traveling. I thought that sounded great then. In the end, I think the jury's out. We'll know in short order how the quality of calls is as people begin testing and comparing properly this week.

Unlike Google, Yahoo's tool lets you leave voice mail if no one answers (Google said a similar feature will be coming). I also like Yahoo's audio tuning wizard, which makes it easy to know if things are working. In fact, Yahoo's tuning tool easily solved the problem I mentioned Gary was having, while in Google, we had to hunt around to figure out the problem.

Yahoo's tool just came out of beta earlier this month, a sign of its maturity. Google's, of course, has just emerged to the world in beta. Prior to this, it was tested for about a month internally, Google said.

No Google Desktop Support

Oddly, text chat done in Google Talk is NOT indexed and made searchable by Google Desktop. Google Desktop does this for AOL chats and recently added support for MSN Messenger. Google said there are no immediate plans to add indexing support for Google Talk.

That had better change -- and soon -- if Google is serious about winning people over. Or at least winning me. I've found having my AOL chats indexed very helpful. Gary and I talk via instant messaging throughout the day on AIM, and it's been handy to search and find what we've discussed. I'm not likely to have an extended conversation in Google Talk until I know that support is there.

FYI, Google Talk will save the last 20 lines of discussion you've had with someone, even after you close the client and restart later. Nice -- but I want more history than this.

Google Talk's also got a way to go to convince me to leave Yahoo Messenger, which as I said I use to communicate with my wife while I'm traveling. The client is easy to use, includes video calling as well, plus links her into Yahoo Mail, which she loves. There's a billion other things also built in.

Now if Google Talk adds decent video calling, I'll be more tempted. My attempts at using video calling with AIM and MSN's tool left me more than disappointed. Tiny windows and space shuttle-like flicker and jerkiness was not impressive.

Yahoo's tool offers "Super Webcam" mode, but no matter what I do, it never seems to activate. Still, it was for me better than AIM or MSN. In the end, I resorted to using SightSpeed, which gave me a much better and bigger picture, though there's still plenty of room for improvement. Occasionally, I'd have connection problems with it. Yahoo always connected, even if the picture quality was poor.

Comparison Chart

Need that at-a-glance view to how things measure up? Gary was busy yesterday, and he's what he's assembled:

Feature

AOL

Google

MSN

Yahoo

Group
Text Chats

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Voice
(PC to PC)

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Video
Chat

Yes

No

Yes

No

VoIP (Call Regular Phone)

Yes

No

No

Yes

File/Image Sharing

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Google Desktop Index Chats?

Yes

No

Yes

No

Mobile
Version?

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Built-In
Search Box

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Send Text To Mobile Phones

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Alerts (News, Mail, Etc)

Yes

Mail Only

Yes

Yes

Want Google Talk? You Need Gmail!

How do you get Google Talk? You have to have a Gmail account. But Gmail remains a closed beta, so how to get in if you're not there already?

Google's established a new program allowing anyone in the US who can receive an SMS message to gain a Gmail account. That pretty much means anyone with a US cell phone (though I'm betting a Canadian number will also work).

Visit this page and instructions on where to send a message to Google are posted. Once you receive your code via SMS, follow these instructions, you can get an account.

Why this runaround? Why not just open things up? Google says it wants to find a way to expand the program but prevent it from being used by those who might set up a ton of accounts for spamming purposes.

"We wanted to expand the list of people who can do it [Gmail”, so we're doing these text message signups. But we want to prevent lots of spam. We want to make sure Gmail is not a haven for spammers or a place where you receive spam. So we decided at this point not to go forward with an open strategy but a slightly closed one," Harik said.

By the way, Google does plan to offer SMS messaging for those outside the US to get Gmail accounts, as it sorts out details with various access providers, it said.

Sidebar Integration & No Ads For Now

Running the new Google Sidebar? If so, you should find a new option to have Google Talk as one of your panels, once installed. It kept crashing things for me, however -- perhaps you'll have better luck. (Postscript: I forgot to say that I've got a lot of junk on my system, which has been behaving oddly of late. A new one is coming in, and the Google Talk panel problem is probably more an issue with my machine. Trying it later today, it's been behaving perfectly)

Wondering if ads are coming? Google says it has no plans at this point for them.

How To Win Users

As said, Google's got a real challenge in weaning people away from existing clients. Just look at the installed user bases of its rivals, from figures comScore sent out yesterday to the media. Figures are the millions of unique visitors each service had in July 2005

  • AOL AIM (for non-AOL subscribers): 30.9 million
  • MSN Messenger: 23.3 million
  • AOL AIM (for AOL members): 23.1 million
  • Yahoo Messenger: 21.6 million
  • AOL ICQ: 1.8 million

One thing Google hopes will help is that it supports an open standard known as Jabber that lets IM clients talk to each other. More correctly, it lets clients that want to talk to each other talk to each other. Those using Trillian will be able to talk with Google Talk and vice versa, for example. However, Google said AOL, MSN, and Yahoo users won't be able to connect, as those clients aren't supporting this protocol. That's something they hope will change.

"We're announcing federation talks with anyone who wants to have open IM. We're committed to doing this with any other network," Harik said.

But why should things suddenly change, when these clients are all years old and have yet to gain interoperability?

"We're going to be a fairly large provider of communication systems, and we're going to put no barriers in place other than to block abuse," Harik said. "We're going to give developers an ability to develop things and build an ecosystem....we hope that's enough to tip people over to an open world, because we think that's more useful for everyone."

In other words, Google thinks Google Talk will take off -- especially with the millions of Gmail users it says it has -- and carry enough weight that the others will want to join in lest they lose users.

In addition, aside from offering Google Talk directly, Google expects to work with ISPs and portals to enable them to offer Google Talk-like clients of their own.

Want to discuss? Visit our forum thread, Google Talk Instant Messaging Live!


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