This week's earnings report from Chinese gaming giant Shanda Interactive (NASDAQ:SNDA) offered an interesting morsel: Since last month, the company has been beta-testing its own instant messaging software called QuanQuan.

Stateside, when folks think IM, they think about either Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) AIM or Yahoo!'s (NASDAQ:YHOO) IM offering. It doesn't matter that AOL's subscriber base for its online service has shrunk for three straight years or that Yahoo! has been lapped in the search engine space by Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). The companies still command a sizeable -- and captive -- audience because they have the established platforms for people to engage in text chat online.

That's why I think QuanQuan may be huge for Shanda if it pans out just right. Shanda is in the process of embedding the QuanQuan IM interface into its popular games, where Shanda is the market leader. As many as 2.5 million Chinese residents are playing in Shanda's assortment of virtual worlds at any given moment.

For now, QuanQuan will give those gamers an effective platform with which to communicate with one another. That's cool. Yet the potential is even greater in the future, for if QuanQuan catches on, it won't be just gamers using the interface. Remember when America Online began offering its AIM software to non-subscribers? Internet users could download the free software at, and that became a great way for non-AOL users to keep in touch with their "you've got mail" buddies. Eventually, non-subscribers began to use it to communicate with other non-subscribers, and the headcount of AOL subscribers became irrelevant. AIM had become its own monster.

That's what a killer application will do for you. Just as PayPal has now taken on a prolific life of its own outside parent company eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), how important will Shanda be if QuanQuan grows to become the standard platform in the world's most populous nation?

I'll tell you how important: very. Yes, it all starts with gamers exchanging messages with gamers. But where it goes from there isn't exactly a game. The online advertising and self-promotional features of controlling the gateway to virtual communication can be a wonderful thing. For investors, that's one virtual world worth looking into.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz believes in the sector, but he does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.