The usefulness of instant messaging can't be denied, especially in the new online office with virtual workers. But I'm not convinced that unifying it is a good idea.
More and more of us are working from home, or being moved into different buildings from our colleagues. This leads to the growth of bureaucracy, meetings, schedules, memos and people generally getting out of touch.
So, increasingly, people who are in closely-knit groups, but geographically dispersed, are keeping in touch with little chatboxes on their screens. They aren't really chatrooms as such: the difference is subtle, but may be important.
Take a product like Yahoo! Messenger, for example. You and a dozen or so of your workmates set up accounts and define each other as 'friends', then each day, when you log on, you see who is online and who isn't. Then, in exactly the same way that you can in an office, you can swap messages instantly with one or several of your colleagues.
Take my word for it; this is useful. But the problem is that in order to use Yahoo! Messenger, all the people in your group have to have YM accounts. In order to use ICQ (I Seek You), everybody has to have an ICQ account. And the same goes for AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM) and MSN's Messenger, too.
What seems to have happened, however, is that MSN decided to join the AOL club by giving its members access to AOL messages. And AOL responded by re-designing the software so as to exclude MSN. A battle ensued, which ended with all of the major suppliers restricting access to their own subscribers only.
Several people have since tried to produce a unified messaging service. Examples include IMICI (very promising) and Jabber (probably the most useful, since it's XML-based). None is actually ready for release yet; they're in beta, and have a lot of work to do.
Their dream is to have an open messaging product, so that a group of people can have 'friends' among any or all of the different suppliers. The dream, when you try it out, turns out to be a nightmare.
The small problems are just irritating. Like, you can do it, but you need everybody to have their own subscription to every other service--as well as to the unified service. Or you can have a list of all your friends, but the MSN ones can't talk to the AOL ones or the ICQ ones; only to you. Also, the extra features are all missing; only the basic features, common to all IM products, are available.
But the real problems, thank goodness, are never going to plague us. That's because the true integration of instant messaging will never happen. If it did nobody would use it again, because it's only the existence of the little problems that is saving us from the real problems.
Imagine if it were possible for one person to send an instant message to anybody who had an IM client. All they would need to know would be your identity; and instantly, lots of 'important special offers' would be available to you.
Reuters has just done a deal with instant messaging service ActiveBuddy. The joint agreement allows Reuters to use ActiveBuddy services to 'convert that instant messaging window into a marketing platform and one that builds a direct relationship with the instant message user', according to its announcement. In other words, it's discovered another vehicle for advertising spam.
It has to be insane. The main reason I use instant messengers, rather than e-mail, is to avoid the flood of meaningless offers of Viagra, debt rescheduling, clairvoyance or pictures of young females who have lost their clothes, which seems to be all you can get on e-mail these days. If IM services turned into nothing better than e-mail, why would anybody use them?
Keep your instant messenger services small, please; I don't want the whole world muscling into my chatrooms with irresistible commercial opportunities. Let me know what you think about the future of instant messenger services in the TalkBack below.