Cell phone giants take on wireless IM

Three of the top four handset makers are joining forces in a joint effort they call "Wireless Village" to create a way for cell phone users to send instant messages to each other, regardless of their phone's make, model or the software inside.

Three of the top four handset makers are joining forces to create a way for cell phone users to send instant messages to each other, regardless of their phone's make, model or the software inside.

Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson are involved in a joint effort they are calling "Wireless Village" to create a set of specifications for handset makers and carriers to follow. The set of specifications should be published by year's end, according to Nokia spokeswoman Megan Matthews.

She expects products built around the specifications to start reaching consumers by the end of 2002.

If successful, Wireless Village could knock down a hurdle that some analysts believe stands in the way of a struggling telecommunications industry and the billions of dollars in revenue projected for the years to come.

Currently, phones can send messages instantly to each other, but only if they share the same instant messaging software. Wireless Village hopes to smash these existing technical roadblocks. Such blockades keep Sprint phones, for example, which use the America Online instant messaging service, from communicating with another phone using Yahoo IM software, Matthews said.

Analysts are still mixed on the proposal; they question whether it's possible to accomplish such a feat. At the same time, they say it could be a boon for the same service providers and handset makers struggling to make cash in a market that has seen even leader Qualcomm scale back sales forecasts. With the cost of making a phone call dropping, telephone service providers have been struggling to find ways to make cash. Most plan to offer higher-speed service in the coming years, capable of not just making a phone call but performing tasks like sending instant messages, cruising the Internet or getting behind a corporate firewall.

Instant messaging isn't just part of future plans--it has already arrived. A form of instant messaging, known as short messaging, has caught fire in Europe. It's estimated that 1 billion short text messages are sent each month between cell phone users just in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless offer subscribers instant messaging.

Analysts believe that while using a telephone to send text messages might never take off in the Americas, where the personal computer is the communication vehicle of choice, a common instant messaging specification could swell the number of messages sent between cell phone users in Europe and Asia.

Thursday's deal is not the first time the major names in the cellular industry have banded together. Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia are partners in Symbian, a joint venture between the wireless industry and several software companies such as Sun Microsystems, RSA Security and Lernout & Hauspie to develop operating systems for so-called smart phones and to champion related standards.

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