It’s the End of Instant Messaging as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane,
Lenny Bruce is not afraid, eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn.
– M. Stipe

Yea, okay, so that title is a little dramatic. Blame Douglas MacMillan on it.

He recently penned an article for BusinessWeek (MHP) entitled, “The End of Instant Messaging (As We Know It)” that discussed the rise of in-browser instant messaging clients like those used on Facebook and Gmail (GOOG).

These IM clients differ from traditional IM clients in that they are, well, in the web browser. Embedded in a website, so to speak. As you type on your friends’ Walls and Facebook Stalk your secret crushes, you can get a little message in the bottom-right corner of the page. It only exists while you’re on the Facebook website though. If you go check your stock quotes on another site, that little message in the bottom-right corner will disappear.

Also, you don’t have to download anything. Or sign up with another account. It’s just there for you automatically, as long as you have a Facebook account.

With traditional IM clients like AOL (TWX) Instant Messenger and Yahoo! (YHOO) Messenger, you have to download some software and create an account. It’s a little more tedious, but lots of people have done it already. Plus, it doesn’t go away as you check out different websites.

The End of Instant Messaging as We Know It?

So what’s the big deal? MacMillan pointed out that traditional IM clients have been seeing a decline in usage. “Instead of spending time with these old-fashioned chat windows,” he writes, “Web users are flocking to sites like Facebook and Google’s Gmail, where instant messaging tools are more closely embedded in what they are doing.”

That’s a good point. Sites like Facebook already have a person’s attention. Instead of asking my friend, who’s using AIM to download YM so I can chat with him, why not just send him an instant message via Facebook (assuming he’s got a Facebook account, of course)?

MacMillan doesn’t supply any data to back up the claim that the decline of traditional IM usage is due to in-browser IM usage, but anecdotally, I have seen an increase in friends using in-browser IMs. The first time I received a Facebook IM, I thought it was some kind of ad. Nowadays, I receive lots of Facebook IMs, some from friends already on my traditional IM lists, others from friends not on my lists.

Those latter messages I’ve grown to appreciate. Since I don’t have them on my traditional IM lists, Facebook has given me an easy way to chat with them. In addition to connecting me with long-lost friends whom I can now email, I can also chat with them in real-time without needing their YM or AIM username.

(Sure, I could call them up too. And I have in a few cases. But sometimes the spontaneity of a random IM chat is kinda nice too.)

And I Don’t Feel Fine

Which brings me to an issue that concerns me greatly. I am a power user of IMs. I use IMs frequently for work purposes. Since I work with people across different geographies, IM has become an important business tool for immediate conversations. Phone is just as good, but when you need to share a URL, IM is much better.

Also, IMs offer a log of chat history. I faithfully archive all of my conversations in case I need to refer to information shared over past IMs. In order to do this, I need a client that has archive ability.

Yahoo! Messenger does. And since it allows MSN (MSFT) Messenger contacts to be added, I get to archive conversations with users of both clients. Gtalk does too. And since it allows AIM contacts to be added, I get to archive conversations from both of them.

Unfortunately, Facebook does not archive conversations. I haven’t had any business-related conversations on Facebook yet, so that hasn’t been a problem. But what if I do? What if a client is available on Facebook and decides to chat me over there. How can I keep a record of that conversation without having to copy & paste it? And what about other websites? If they incorporate in-browser IM, will they have archives?

That’s just one problem. Another is having chat archives all over the place. Already, I have one with YM and another with Gtalk. 37signals has a great collaboration tool for small businesses called Campfire which contains its own archives as well. While it’s nice that they all keep a record of my conversations, searching through all of these sources is a major pain in the patootey.

Offer Me Solutions, Offer Me Alternatives and I Decline

What I need is an IM archive aggregator of some sort. Not more in-browser or out-of-browser IM archives. But a way to search through all of one’s IM archives.

Attached to this suggestion is the natural idea of an IM aggregator – a central IM client that allows you to sign in to multiple services in one place. That, fortunately, has been addressed. On the traditional IM client side, there’s Pidgin, Jabber, Trillian, and tons more.

On the in-browser side, there’s Meebo, Soashable, ILoveIM.com, and tons more. (Not to be left behind, traditional IM clients have also created in-browser versions: AIM Express, Yahoo! Web Messenger, and MSN Web Messenger. Gtalk was released as a downloadable client and in-browser app at the same time.).

That’s a whole lotta choices. A whole lotta. Looking at them all is kind of like going through the cereal aisle of the supermarket, except that these require login accounts and passwords and no milk or bowls or… ah, nevermind, bad analogy.

That’s a whole lotta choices. All of them solve the problem of having multiple IM accounts. But now that Facebook and other companies are releasing their own IM systems, we’re going to run into the problem of having multiple IM accounts again. Great. Thanks Facebook.

That’s Great, It Starts with an Earthquake

Having a proliferation of choices isn’t uncommon though, especially not for new markets. Over time, leaders will emerge. Hopefully, global standards too. The current leader, Meebo, is already doing something that I hope will continue:

They just got Flixster to offer Meebo’s in-browser IM client as a feature. This means Meebo is moving into the IM provider business. Since they already offer an archive, any in-browser IMs I get from Flixster will appear in my Meebo account too. Neat!

Now if Facebook integrated Meebo, how cool would that be? Or – even better – if Facebook integrated Gtalk, then I’d be able to combine my Facebook chats with my existing Gtalk & AIM archives. Oh what a happy day that would be.

And not just for me, but perhaps for Facebook and others as well. They’d be able to outsource all of their IM development & maintenance to a IM provider. Sort of like a Disqus for IM, perhaps? (Not sure if that analogy works either, but you know what I mean.)

I’m guessing the folks at Meebo are already thinking about this. I wonder if the Gtalk people are too. If not, I hope so. An IM aggregator that works both in-browser and as a downloadable client, and can be leveraged on third-party websites, and has a common, searchable archive would be totally awesome. And I’d feel fine…

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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