Google Talk and Jabber vs the Rest

I have a lot of friends on the MSN Messenger chat network that I quite enjoy talking to, but unfortunately my favourite instant messaging program — iChat on Mac OS X — can’t talk to MSN. (Linux people, keep reading, I promise this post will get more relevant to you despite my reference to iChat.) iChat, can, however, talk to Jabber servers. I’ve known for a while that many Jabber servers have the capability to bridge networks, so that you can talk to people on all the other chatting networks (ICQ, Yahoo!, AIM, MSN, and Google Talk) by simply logging into a single Jabber server. However, I never bothered configuring iChat to do this until today.

I’m very happy to say that one of the first guides I found on Google about how to set up iChat to talk to MSN was on the Jabber Australia site, which is also one of the most professional Web sites I’ve seen for a free, open service. The process was quite painless and nearly completely Web-based: the Jabber Australia site imports all your current MSN contacts into your new Jabber contacts list, so you don’t have to re-type them all in. The Jabber<->MSN bridge even sends across all your buddies’ icons, so I can see iChat proudly displaying pictures of all my mates. Very schmick.

Step the second: I also have friends on Google Talk, and since Google opened up their servers to Jabber federation in January 2006, that means I also get to chat with all my friends who have Gmail accounts and never bother logging into the IM networks. (Muahaha, and they thought they could avoid me!) Now I’m finally gotten into the 2000 era and have one chat client that can talk to any of MSN, ICQ, Yahoo!, Google Talk, and AIM; woohoo, clever me.

However, the story’s much bigger than just simple chat network interoperability. Google’s move into the IM market by unleashing Google Talk might have seemed rather underwhelming when it was first announced: after all, it was just like Skype… but Google voice chat was Windows-only when Skype is Windows/Mac/Linux, and oh yeah, it also had, like, none of Skype’s user base. However, Google Talk has one massive weapon behind it: open standards. In the past few months, Google has done two very significant things:

  • They’ve opened up their servers so that they can interoperate with other Jabber servers.
  • Published their voice-call protocol as an open standard, and even provided third-party developers with a library (libjingle) that can be integrated into any IM client.

The second point is huge: in one move, Google has brought voice capability to the entire Jabber federation chat network. (And, if you haven’t used Google Talk, the voice quality is damn good: better than Skype, and possibly on par or better than iChat AV.) The implication of this is that there’s going to be a big split in the short-term between the official ICQ/Yahoo!/AIM/MSN clients and everyone else (i.e. Trillian, Gaim, AdiumX, etc). The official clients will, of course, only work with their own network since they want to lock you in, but every other IM client that doesn’t currently support voice chatting — which means everybody except for Skype and iChat AV — is very, very likely to be putting Google’s voice protocols into their own chat clients. Look a couple of years ahead, and I think you’ll find that every IM chat client is going to have voice support, and that they’ll be divided into two camps: the ones that support Google’s voice protocol because it’s an open standard, and everybody else.

The thing is, right now, that “everybody else” is really only one other group: Skype. There’s also iChat AV, but that’s small fry compared to Skype, and since Apple piggybacks off the AIM network right now, they don’t have a large interest in locking customers into one particular network. (It’d be relatively easy for Apple to migrate all their .Mac accounts over to a Jabber-federated network just by throwing a couple of Jabber servers up for their .Mac users and publishing a new version of iChat that talked to that.) This means that it’s more-or-less going to be Skype vs Google Talk in the next coming years, and while Skype has absolutely huge mindshare right now, I don’t think they have a hope of holding out, because they’re the only damn network right now that absolutely requires you to use their own client. The one killer advantage that Skype has compared to Google Talk is that you can use Skype call-out and call-in to do phone calls, but once Google gets SIP support into Jingle, Google Talk will have that capability as well. Unless Skype do something radical, they’re going to be extinct in a few years as developers start pushing Jingle support into every single IM client.

Heh, not a bad situation at all: in one move, Google’s not only guaranteed some measure of success for themselves in the IM market, but they’ve also made the world a slightly better place by giving users client choice and software choice thanks to open standards. One voice protocol to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them…

blog comments powered by Disqus