AT&T, Yahoo bring real-time IM to cell phone users

For the first time, AT&T Wireless Services Inc. telephone users can receive text messages sent directly to their phones from users of Yahoo Inc.'s instant messaging (IM) service, even if the AT&T customer doesn't have a Yahoo account.

The new service, quietly unveiled by Sunnyvale, Calif.- based Yahoo last month, allows an AT&T Wireless phone customer to communicate in real time with a Yahoo Messenger user on a computer by typing text messages back and forth.

Mary Osako, a spokeswoman for Yahoo, said the service is part of the company's strategy of extending Yahoo use beyond the desktop.

The Yahoo Messenger client software now has a prominent button labeled "Mobile," which when clicked, allows a user to send a text message to any AT&T Wireless customer, Osako said. "We've made the mobile function very visible," she said. The button replaces a previous button that allowed IM users to initiate online telephone calls from the IM client. That service is still available but is now buried in a cascading menu.

"We found that the consumer experience of using text messages to communicate is appealing to a growing number of customers," Osako said.

Danielle Perry, a spokeswoman for Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless, said this is believed to be the first time that an online IM client has been able to connect directly with a cell phone customer for instant text messaging on a consumer level. "Nobody else had enabled that in the U.S. so far," she said.

Messages sent by the Yahoo IM user are free, while AT&T customers are charged 10 cents for received messages. Message plans are also available, from US$2.99 to $19.99 per month for up to 8MB of text data.

While AT&T Wireless customers have had the ability to receive text messages for about two years, the capability until now didn't involve real-time chat from a PC, Perry said.

"Instant messaging is pretty big online, and it's a natural thing now to make them mobile," she said.

AT&T also has an operating agreement with America Online Inc., but that capability doesn't include real-time chat with AOL Instant Messenger users on AT&T wireless phones. Instead, AT&T users can use their AOL Buddy Lists (address books) to contact other AT&T Wireless cell phone users.

Neil MacDonald, an analyst at Gartner Inc, in Stamford, Conn., said the new PC-to-wireless-phone capability is a positive move by the two companies.

This is a bigger step than the existing deal between AOL and AT&T, he said, because AOL customers can only communicate with others on their phones if the other user has an existing AOL Instant Messenger account. "This goes beyond that and doesn't require that you have a Yahoo account to communicate," he said. "It's an attempt by Yahoo to make a dent in AOL's dominance in the consumer space."

"It makes sense in the evolution of IM," MacDonald said. "People don't want to only use IM on PCs."

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