Where is Instant Messaging heading?

Kameshwar Prasad (kameshi08@iimk.ac.in), Vinay Kumar (vinayk08@iimk.ac.in)

Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode



Instant Messaging (IM) is a way of sending short, simple messages that are delivered immediately to online users. Combining two key technologies – instant message delivery and presence information – IM is an attractive messaging service that has already proven popular with end-users. Presence information describes the “status” of the user. Using it in a mobile application expands its usefulness beyond merely knowing whether a user is online or not – it can be used to indicate their location, their need for privacy or willingness to communicate and give an idea of their moods and sentiments. It introduces the idea of “see before you connect” – a user wanting to communicate with someone first checks the status and availability of the other user and then chooses the most appropriate way to communicate. Presence and instant messaging features are separate and can work independently of each other. However, a presence service gives a user a better idea about a recipient's ability to receive instant messages. The two services are often used in tandem and are marketed as instant messaging services on the Internet, and now also in the mobile domain.

An early form of instant messaging was implemented on the PLATO system in the early 1970s. Later the UNIX/LINUX "talk" instant messaging system was widely used by engineers and academics in the 1980s and 1990s to communicate across the internet. ICQ was the first general instant messenger introduced for non-UNIX/LINUX computers in November 1996. After its introduction, a number of variations of instant messaging have arisen in parallel in many places, each with its own protocol. This has led to users running many instant messaging applications simultaneously to be available on several networks. Alternatively they could use a client which supports many protocols, such as Gaim, Trillian or Jabber clients.

Recently, many instant messaging services have begun to offer video conferencing features, Voice Over IP (VoIP), and web conferencing services have begun to integrate both video conferencing and instant messaging capabilities. Hence, the boundaries among these media have become blurred.

There is no doubt that the Internet has changed the way we communicate. For many of us, e-mail has virtually replaced traditional letters and even telephone calls as the choice for correspondence. People send billions of e-mail messages on a daily basis. E-mail has been the most rapidly adopted form of communication ever known. In less than two decades, it has gone from obscurity to mainstream dominance.

In our fast-paced world, sometimes even the rapid response of e-mail is not fast enough. One has no way of knowing if the person it is sending e-mail to is online at that particular moment or not. Also, if one is sending multiple e-mails back and forth with the same person, one normally has to click through a few steps to read, reply and send the e-mail. This is why Instant Messaging (IM) has gained popularity.

Instant messaging allows you to maintain a list of people that you wish to interact with. You can send messages to any of the people in your list, called a Buddy List by most IM programs, as long as that person is online. Sending a message opens up a small window where you and your friend can type in messages that both of you can see.

Most of the popular instant-messaging programs provide a variety of features:

•  Instant messages - send notes back and forth with a friend who is online

•  Chat - create your own custom chat room with friends or co-workers

•  Web links - share links to your favorite Web sites

•  Images - look at an image on your friend's computer

•  Sounds - play sounds for your friends

•  Files - share files by sending them directly to your friends

•  Talk - use the Internet instead of a phone to actually talk with friends

•  Streaming content - real-time or near real-time stock quotes and news

Mobility and IM convergence

Instant messaging services have proven popular on the Internet and have given birth to a range of other interesting services and features. Now, instant messaging services are moving to the mobile domain. The basic benefit of mobile instant messaging is still the “see before you connect” aspect, but mobility adds a number of features to make it even more attractive to the user. The main added benefit is that access to IM services becomes ubiquitous, meaning that a user can access presence information and exchange IM messages at any time, not only when seated in front of a desktop PC. This will have a profound effect on usage patterns – it will also change presence information to better reflect the mood and state of the user, rather than focusing on whether or not the user is logged on to a PC. In fact, being online or offline becomes largely irrelevant, since mobile users are essentially always online – much more important is the location and situation of the mobile users and the communication method they prefer.

In addition to presence, the growth of mobile instant messaging services will be helped by a number of other technology drivers. A key aspect is its immediate nature, which will be supported by the always-on characteristics of GPRS. GPRS will give IM users a continuous data connection to their service providers, providing immediate updates on the presence information of other users and bringing them their messages in real time. In the early stages, standards based mobile IM will be a new feature in terminals from major terminal vendors. In order to ensure quick growth and acceptance amongst the users, SMS and WAP access which is widely available even in low-end mobile terminals, can also be used to offer mobile IM services.

The key is not the technology used, but the connectivity: all users can exchange messages with each other regardless of whether they use IM over GPRS or WAP/SMS over GPRS/GSM as the access method. Another key aspect is the fact that mobile terminals are becoming easier to use. Users have already accepted SMS with predictive text input, proving that keyboard size is not an issue. New terminals will also have bigger, color screens, making it easier for users to carry on longer discussions on the screen.

The list below shows the main reasons for the success of instant messaging in the mobile world:


  • The screens of mobile devices are large enough for the basic mobile IM and presence features, such as reading and writing messages, maintaining a contact list and viewing the status of contacts.
  • User interface improvements, such as predictive text-input in mobile terminals, will be a further boost for mobile IM services.
  • Instant messaging and presence services benefit from the evolution of the mobile network: using GPRS as a bearer allows flexible charging methods.
  • Mobile IM services are available now for the traditional circuit switched GSM network.
  • Compared to desktop Internet services, the mobile terminal is always with the user, enabling constant update of presence information.
  • The mobile terminal is becoming the personal trusted device, used not only for communication, but also contact management, identity and time management, giving an appealing platform for IM and other presence enabled services.
  • The amount of data actually transferred is relatively small and does not require much bandwidth, hence allowing inexpensive services that will appeal to a mass-market.

Because mobile users are almost always online, presence will be used to indicate users' availability to communicate. Mobile users will also be able to define how they wish to be contacted: in some situations a voice call is not appropriate, but a text-message is.

To ensure effective communication between friends, presence services must offer a means of controlling privacy. While there is likely to be some presence information that can be shared with all mobile users, a user must have strict control over all sensitive information, particularly concerning location. Mobile users are those who control their presence – they decide what others can see and when they can see it.

Mobility and Voice over IP

The telecommunications industry is in the midst of the mega trend of IP (Internet Protocol) convergence, with the shift from circuit-based networks and system to IP packet-based networks being driven by the new rich service innovation opportunities and cost savings they offer. Every level of the value chain is evolving: fixed operators are looking to take advantage of reduced infrastructure and maintenance expenditure; mobile operators hope to accelerate fixed-mobile substitution by offering services previously available only from fixed lines; and enterprise and end users are eager to see the benefits of reduced call tariffs and the advanced services IP systems offer. The most visible aspect of IP convergence is through Voice over IP (VoIP), a way to carry voice calls over an IP network by digitizing and packetizing them as data streams. Operators already use VoIP through IP trunking and the use of soft switches to reduce backhaul and transmission charges. In this scenario, traffic between telephony switches is routed over an IP network, in a manner transparent to end users. IP trunking is often used to reduce the cost of transmitting international calls or backhaul from a cellular base station. But thanks to the growing popularity of consumer services, VoIP over broadband Internet connections is becoming more and more common. Call quality as good as, if not better than that of, traditional phones and advanced features add to the attraction of call charges that are significantly lower than those of traditional circuit-based fixed operators.

While a small percentage of total worldwide telephone subscribers currently use VoIP services, the number is growing quickly as incumbent operators roll out their own IP-based systems to compete with those from new entrants. The IP revolution is going on simultaneously with another telecom trend: voice goes mobile. Mobile subscriber penetration exceeds 100% in many mature markets, while in many emerging economies; mobile users far exceed the number of fixed subscribers. And even as the high speed data capabilities of mobile networks increase, voice is still expected to be the most significant mobile application. Cellular voice service will remain circuit-switched for some time to come, but combining VoIP and mobile networks can make a perfect match; delivering clear benefits to enterprise users, consumers and operators.

A combined mobile VoIP offering could drive mobile voice penetration and usage while reducing costs, and make it possible for operators to introduce new voice-based services and other innovative, rich multimedia services. By introducing fixed VoIP to cellular telephony and mobile VoIP to fixed telephony, operators could have the possibility to create a unified voice and multimedia service experience.

Voice over IP and Instant Messaging convergence

Voice connectivity in IM is nothing particularly new. Microsoft's MSN Messenger has had it since 2000, with AOL and Yahoo! for almost as long. For the most part, historically speaking, IM voice connectivity has been PC-to-PC and was not always of land-line quality. MSN Messenger at one point also had PSTN services as well. Voice quality of PC-to-PC calls has steadily improved over the last several years; however, as the technology has evolved and broadband adoption has increased.

There are a lot of different reasons why VoIP quality is improving, not the least of which are the improved codecs currently being used. Skype, which arguably first popularized high-quality PC-to-PC calling, makes use of the Global IP Sound (GIPS) codecs. Vonage's softphone makes use of the Xten codec, which also happens to be the same codec that Yahoo! Messenger now also uses. Yahoo! Messenger's voice capabilities are based on the industry standard SIP protocol. The new generation of IM clients, offering enhanced voice capabilities, amongst a myriad of other advanced features, means that users don't need to leave their IM client.

Looking ahead, the emerging standards SIP and SIMPLE will be important for interoperability. IM and presence is becoming ubiquitous and easier to integrate into corporate applications, but interoperability remains a key challenge. Microsoft has in the past pledged support for SIMPLE as it matures in the standards process. One thing is likely though, with 867 million instant messaging accounts and counting, VoIP over IM is a market that simply cannot be ignored.

Future of Instant Messaging

As it is visible from the previous discussion, the convergence is already taking place between IM, VOIP and mobility technologies. As of now, the convergence is taking place in piecemeal fashion among pairs of these technologies. In the future, it is expected that the IM technology will be a key component of converged information and communication technology.

Regarding the advancement in the IM technology per se, IM is just the first killer app of presence awareness, and presence awareness will continue beyond person to person text messaging to include linking people to applications and applications to applications.

Person to application IM, which IBM currently offers through its Sametime BOTS technology, extends the value of the buddy list to nearly any application. Examples of person to application IM include gaining access directory records, interacting with applications, and searching for experts.

Application to person, server initiated IM, in which an application is aware of a person's online presence, can speed workflows and business process. In the future, application to application messaging through Web services will truly leverage the advantages of real time presence. The idea of a machine messaging to other machines and to people is an incredibly powerful tool.

Also as the importance and usage of IM increases in the organizational context, the security aspects of the IM will become even important as IM evolves in the future.

The underlying role of technology is to make things simpler for the users. The mobility, flexibility and creativity of converged technology will make the services more than just convenient ways to keep in touch with friends and family, and both are enhancing the business world by increasing productivity and efficiency.

So, IM is heading towards a future of being a key communication method available on converged mobile devices.



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