Microsoft has struck a deal with a British wireless carrier to allow European cell phone customers to interact with MSN Messenger from the instant-messaging system installed on their phones.
British carrier Genie said the instant messenger used by its 5.8 million customers can now interact with people using MSN Messenger -- marking the first widespread, "real world" adoption of IM interoperability, or of being able to message someone on a different IM service. The deal will likely fuel the debate about how various systems can work together to create a unified messaging system.
"Bringing a huge, huge number of users, like cell phone owners, into the market is extremely interesting," said Mike Wehrs, Microsoft director of technology and standards for mobility. "You are starting to see some industry forces align, making it advantageous for MSN Messenger to get out to a multitude of people."
For the most part, IM customers can reach buddies only within their own IM system. That results in people having to log on to multiple IM services on their computers to reach various buddies. On a cell phone, messaging is even more limited: Customers can only be logged on to one IM system at a time.
The Genie service, currently in testing, will be launched in January, according to Genie President Kent Thexton.
According to Genie and Openwave Systems, which makes the messaging software, Genie cell phone users will now be able to log on and see buddies that are using either the Genie or the MSN IM service.
Openwave executives say they are in negotiations with both Yahoo! and AOL Time Warner to take part in the Genie service. Jonathan Perera, senior director of product management at Openwave, said the company expects to announce a deal with Yahoo soon, and that AOL is "close" to signing on.
Representatives from AOL and Yahoo! had no comment.
If other IM services sign up, such as Yahoo! and AOL, Genie subscribers would have access to buddies on those services. Subscribers would likely pay a monthly fee for the service. Also in January, Genie will issue software for a PC that will allow customers to have IM conversations between cell phones and personal computers, the company said in a release. The various IM services have been working for years to reach some sort of agreement on how to allow their customers to reach friends on other IM systems. There have been brief windows -- literally for just hours at a time -- when MSN has worked out a way to reach AOL instant-messaging users, but Microsoft's efforts have been quickly shut down by AOL, which has famously guarded its database of IM users from competitors. Although AOL has recently begun interoperability trials with Sun Microsystems and IBM's Lotus Sametime instant messenger, the company has drawn sharp criticism for failing to work more closely with other companies. Last year, IMUnified, a coalition of companies that includes Microsoft, Yahoo!, AT&T and Excite@Home, lobbied federal regulators to force AOL to open its IM network as a condition of its merger with Time Warner. Analysts say AOL might be more inclined to work on a wireless IM plan, since there is a way to make money off using cell phones to send messages. Aside from paying for Internet access, sending a message on a computer is free, and it's free to sign up for the service. As a result, IM companies are searching for ways to make money, such as Yahoo! recently exploring ways to send ads to its IM customers. AOL, on the other hand, views its IM product as a way to keep its growing base of Internet access subscribers. But messaging on wireless devices, especially cell phones, isn't free. Carriers like Genie are likely to charge an additional monthly fee for consumers to participate. Carriers also earn money from the extra airtime spent sending messages. Either way, there is a way to charge for instant messaging, creating revenue that carriers can then split with AOL, Yahoo!, MSN or other companies, analysts said. "This will definitely give them more incentive," said Keith Waryas, a wireless analyst with IDC. "The question is whether or not it's enough to abandon their old school of thought." Added Alan Reiter, president of consulting firm Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing: "AOL could use this as a test to see its viability, without having to open its crown jewels. It doesn't surprise me to hear that AOL is interested. Major service providers like AOL have all adopted wireless into their strategies." Sticking points
While the service launched by Genie and Microsoft opens the door to interoperability, it still won't let a Yahoo! IM member send a message directly to someone from AOL. Even if Genie signs up both Yahoo! and AOL to its service, customers still need to go through Genie to communicate with buddies from those services. It remains to be seen how any agreement reached with other major IM carriers will work out conflicts such as having duplicate logon names in different systems -- for example, trying to reach a Yahoo! customer called "robertw" and reaching an AOL customer that has the "robertw" logon name in that system. Several companies, such as Ruksun Software Technologies, Tribal Voice and Odigo, have released software that would allow IM customers to talk to each other, but none has been widely adopted by the industry. For Mac users, an application called Fire made by Epicware connects to AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger networks, among others. But the Openwave software is the first to be adopted by major IM providers and put to use. Another British carrier, British Telecommunications, also is working with Openwave to set up a similar IM system, and Vodafone is in talks with a different software company for a similar project. If it moves, we cover it. See ZDNet UK's Mobile Technology News Section for the latest news, reviews and price checks on mobile phones, PDAs, notebook computers and anything else you can take-away. Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the Telecoms forum. Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.