Openwave brings instant messaging to cell phone

Instant messaging is coming to mobile phones and it will be interoperable with all major PC instant message (IM) applications, Openwave Systems Inc. promised Monday as it announced the limited release of its mobile IM product at Comdex Fall.

Genie, the mobile Internet business of mmO2 PLC (formerly BT Cellnet), will be the first to offer the service early next year across Europe and later in Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia, said Jonathan Perera, senior director of product management at Openwave in an interview.

"After Genie, we'll see more service providers launch next year. We have customers doing trials in the U.S., South America and Asia," he said.

From the start, Openwave IM will work with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger, which is not a coincidence because the makers of the Openwave IM platform are former Microsoft employees who created MSN Messenger, which now has about 40 million users.

"Early next year we will offer interoperability with Yahoo (Inc.'s) Messenger and America Online (Inc.)," Perera said. AOL dominates the desktop IM market with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ.

To pull off the interoperability, which desktop users want but do not yet have, Openwave will help broker business agreements between the mobile service providers and the IM companies, Perera said, suggesting that the IM providers could be awarded a share of the revenue generated by the mobile IM users.

Interoperability with various IM services is an important advantage over current mobile IM offerings where, in the U.S. for example, several mobile operators have tied themselves to a single IM service, Perera said.

Openwave's IM service, targeted primarily at teenagers, does not require special software or a special handset. It is based on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), which most recent phones support and works on today's 2G (second-generation) networks. Users typically pay on a time basis for connection to WAP services, but Genie in the U.K offers unlimited WAP access for a flat monthly fee, a service it is expected to roll out across its service area.

To send and receive messages a user sets up a WAP connection and signs in, a process that can be sped up by using bookmarks and cookies on the phone. Messaging costs airtime, which is what makes the service appealing to traditional operators that don't offer a flat fee and are looking for ways to increase revenue per user.

Mobile users will have access to their buddy lists and will be able to see who is online, just as with PC-based messaging. When offline, mobile IM users can be invited to IM via an SMS (Short Message Service) text message sent by a buddy from an IM application.

Buddy lists will be expanded to show if somebody is online, on a phone, or on a PC.

"That helps people understand what sort of communication to expect. You won't be sending long paragraphs from your phone," Perera said.

Openwave has thought of two ways to make messaging simple for the mobile user. Often-used sentences can be stored under a numeric code so that entering the code sends that sentence. Or PC users can craft a numbered list of answers to a question and typing in the number sends the corresponding response, Perera said.

The IM service based on WAP and offered on 2G networks won't draw crowds, said Paolo Pescatore, senior analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC) based in the U.K.

"It won't prove to be that popular solely for the reason that a user has to take the time and set up a WAP call and while sending messages you're not perfectly happy with the service because it is slow," he said, adding that operators that charge on a time basis will have an even tougher time attracting an audience.

Genie and the other service providers will have more success when GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) packet-switched mobile service becomes available for consumers, Pescatore said.

"The WAP-based IM service will be more appealing with WAP over GPRS, it is faster and you are always only charged for information transmitted," he said.

The mobile IM service won't carry Openwave's brand. Service providers, such as Genie, will brand the service. A desktop IM client is also part of Openwave's offering. A service provider can brand the client and sell advertising space in it, Perera said.

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