Google backs multimedia standard for IM

Google is helping to extend an open instant messaging protocol so that IM (instant message) applications based on it will have a standard method for multimedia communications.

Google is contributing to multimedia extensions to the open Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) that will enable XMPP-based instant messaging applications to conduct sessions involving voice and video.

The effort is spearheaded by the nonprofit Jabber Software Foundation (JSF), which on Thursday published the initial documentation for this set of multimedia extensions, called Jingle.

When the JSF began defining the Jingle set of extensions, the group discovered that they were similar to the protocol used in the Google Talk IM application, so the two decided to collaborate to merge the technologies.

This is an important step forward because the IM providers eventually will have to adopt open standards, and the confluence of VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and IM is an emerging area that is garnering great interest from users, said analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research.

"It's an important step forward in the right direction. It won't change the world [of IM] overnight but it's something the industry will have to move towards," Osterman said.

Google's involvement in extending XMPP is in line with the direction it laid out for Google Talk when it introduced the application in August 2005. Google Talk is built on XMPP, unlike competing and older IM systems from America Online (AOL), Microsoft and Yahoo, all of which are based on proprietary technology.

By building its IM application on an open platform, Google took a significant stand on the side of interoperability, the main inconvenience affecting users of AOL's AIM, Microsoft's MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. Google's position was interpreted by some industry pundits as the motivation behind the decision announced in October by Yahoo and Microsoft to enable a degree of interoperability between their IM networks. The first results of that effort are expected in 2006.

AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, which together control most consumer IM traffic, have been reluctant to link their IM networks for a variety of reasons, including concern over potential security breaches and worry of diluting the value for their advertisers if their audiences are no longer captive. However, analysts say, if Google Talk can draw a critical mass of users, and offer them interoperability with other IM networks that support XMPP, it could present a real challenge to the closed AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft services.

Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo should pay close attention to this initiative from Google and the JSF and seriously consider participating in some manner, Osterman said.

Because their networks are based on proprietary protocols, enabling interoperability presents significant technical challenges, a point that officials from Yahoo and Microsoft repeated often during the press conference held to announce the effort.

Due to the technical complexity of the endeavor, Yahoo and Microsoft committed to delivering some interoperability no sooner than the second quarter of 2006. They also only pledged to enable text message exchange, PC-to-PC voice chat, sharing of some emoticons and consolidating contacts from both services.

This means that, for the foreseeable future, increasingly popular IM activities such as VOIP phone calls, photo sharing, file sharing, Webcam video transmission and gaming will not be interoperable between Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger.

Jabber Inc., a major supporter of the JSF, was founded in 2000 to build a commercial IM platform based on the XMPP protocol, which has been ratified by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

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