Despite all the recent buzz about search, it appears that we might be able to think about instant messaging again -- for a few minutes, anyway. (IM was such a big topic for 2004, come to think of it.) Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) is apparently testing a new version of its Yahoo! Messenger service that incorporates unlimited, free, global voice-over-Internet protocol, or VoIP, technology.
"Testing" doesn't mean that the service isn't live. This is one of those public betas favored by Internet giants like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , Yahoo!, and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) . Thanks to VoIP, Yahoo! Messenger users can place phone calls over the Internet in addition to their usual text chatting. (The company assures us in its press release that talking to your computer no longer means you're crazy.)
Truth is, though, the concept of VoIP has become much more prevalent recently; many providers offer service that looks and feels like traditional phone service, but is delivered over the Internet. Relatively new companies like Vonage have embraced VoIP, but so have corporate heavyweights like AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , apparently bowing to customer interest in inexpensive phone service.
Then, of course, there's the idea that IM is more than just a social application; it can also be used for business . Yahoo! also plans to incorporate photo-sharing services and its 360 social-networking site into its IM. The company seems to have put some thought into its new Messenger, adding features that tie together its offerings while offering that extra bonus.
But as I've said in the past about Yahoo! offering this very perk, if I felt like talking to somebody on the phone, I'd call them on the phone. Maybe I'm missing something and this is going to lead to the end of traditional phone calls among computer users, but somehow I can't imagine it. (I used to think IM was creepy because I didn't necessarily like the idea of people knowing I was online -- however, given the fact that I prefer IM to telephone conversations, the new Yahoo! Messenger brings that old fear right back to haunt me.)
And even though there's a lot of excitement over VoIP, that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody's got to get in the action. Indeed, other recent entrants into the space have been Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) America Online (whose AIM software is arguably the name in instant messaging) and EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK ) .
Meanwhile, though, I have to ask: Whatever happened to convergence? Maybe that's one of the major no-brainers for customer retention in instant messaging, especially when many people tend to favor the IM service their friends and family use. Features play an important role in loyalty, too -- but it seems, in IM as in many areas of the Internet, innovation rarely digs a deep enough moat.
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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.