Operators ally for mobile IM

3GSM: Fourteen major mobile phone operators have promised to break down the barriers preventing their users sending instant messages to each other

Some of the world's biggest mobile operators are joining forces to make instant messaging services interoperable amongst their collective customers.

China Mobile, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone were among the 14 network providers that have signed up to the IM initiative, backed by the GSM Association — promising a customer base of 700 million users worldwide.

Craig Conway, chief executive of the GSMA, said interoperable messaging is a landmark for the associations' members and will provide a blueprint for the rollout of other mobile services.

The operators have agreed to charge mobile IM users for outgoing messages but incoming messages will be free. According to Arun Sarin, chief executive of Vodafone, this will cut down on unwanted malicious code being sent to users' mobiles.

"There will be fewer viruses and less spam than on many internet-based services," said Sarin.

Traditionally, operators have been loathe to push services such as mobile IM and email fearing it would cannibalise on lucrative SMS messaging. Rene Obermann, head of T-Mobile, denied such suggestions. He said: "Overall, we believe it will increase data usage."

However, the interoperable IM dream will take some time to come to fruition as currently only high-end phones such as those running on Microsoft or Symbian will be able to use the service. It will be on most handsets bought next year, according to the operators, although some handsets now in circulation won't be able to be upgraded at all.

The question of ISPs and web IM operators could also serve to stymie the sharing. While some operators which sell broadband access and mobile subscriptions — such as France Telecom, which owns both Orange and Wanadoo — will be able to make their PC- and mobile-based offerings interoperable, other internet players such as MSN have not joined the initiative, despite overtures from the operators.

According to Mark Newman, chief research officer at analyst house Informa, the conspicuous absence of web-based IM companies will prove a hurdle in driving mobile IM take-up. He said: "If you don't have MSN and mobile IM, where's your marketplace? You've got to take a PC-centric view of the universe."

While the operators believe that the service will be a hit with the youth market, Newman added there was "no chance" such users will shun free internet-based services for their mobile counterparts. "It's too little, too late," Newman said.

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