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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 August 2005, 20:49 GMT 21:49 UK
Search engines take on talk
Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Reporter, BBC Click Online

In the third and final of Click Online's series looking at competition among the big portals and search engines, Spencer Kelly reports on the move into messaging, photo-sharing and centralisation of information.

Voice over Internet Protocol is already becoming very popular
If you believe the hype, you may as well throw away the keyboard because you will never need to type another message again.

Yahoo's Messenger now uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), letting users with fast enough connections make internet voice calls. And there is even a voicemail option if you do not want to be disturbed.

Not ones to be left behind, just this week Google launched its own instant messaging and internet voice calling service.

It is another sign, if proof were needed, that the communications market is another area that the big web providers are trying to corner.

Messenger applications bring together many different communication methods under one umbrella. Yahoo's Messenger, for example, allows you to text someone's mobile phone.

In the battle for our attention, MSN has decided even voice calls are not enough. Using a webcam at each end and a suitably fast internet connection, you can make video calls, which can also be shown full-screen.


Apart from talking to each other, instant messaging software has tuned into the latest web craze: sharing and showing off digital photos.

"Pictures are turning out to be the number one thing that people want to share", says MSN's Stuart Anderson. "Friends, family trips and so on.

Photo blog
Sharing photographs online is creating a huge new market
"The one thing we've looked at with pictures is how we can open up the floodgates and let people get on with it. So soon we're going to open up the doors and let people put as many pictures as they like online."

Even Google has bought a suite of photo-sharing software. You can doctor your pictures with Picassa, adjusting colours, and composition; share them with instant messaging program Hello; and upload them to the web with Blogger to make your very own weblog.

In the past, blogging has been seen as the territory of wannabe journalists or diarists, a hobby for the determined minority. But now, fuelled by the burgeoning digital photo market, where everyone wants to show off their photos, blogging is very much in the mainstream.

As Lisa Jones, of Net magazine, says: "Just four or five years ago setting up a website or getting your head around the skills you needed to set up a website was pretty hard and not really open to your average person.

"But now, with blogging and photo sharing, people can have their own web space to share information with family and friends all across the world. It's free in most cases, and it's really simple, like setting up a Microsoft Word document."

Centralised storage

With most blogging software, the photos are compressed when you upload them to the web, the assumption being that friends will only want to see smaller screen-size versions (and it does save just a little bit of space).

More and more of people's lives will end up online
Nick Hazell, Yahoo
But what if you do want to e-mail full quality photos to friends? A five megapixel photo will make for a very large e-mail attachment, which could clog up the recipient's net connection, especially if you want to send several in one go.

Yahoo Photomail has a solution. Instead of e-mailing photos to friends, you only drag small thumbnails of the photos into the message.

The full quality photos are uploaded to a central storage space. When the recipient opens the e-mail, they can click on a thumbnail and choose whether to download the full quality photo from the central store, or just view a more-manageable, compressed copy.

You have centralised your e-mail accounts by using one of the provider's webmail services. You have centralised your photos, so you and friends can get at them anywhere. And you can centralise your calendar and contacts too. That is an awful lot of centralising.

Yahoo's Nick Hazell says: "We believe that in a very connected world, where that involves more than just a PC device, so mobile and living room devices, more and more of people's lives will end up online.

"In other words, more of their data, information and things that they need will be provided from a central location as opposed to a PC."

Yahoo's Intellisync is one way to synchronise your calendar and contacts with your web account, meaning you can access your personal data from anywhere.

Security issues

The more of your personal data they hold, the more the providers can count you as a sole customer.

Some providers, however, are taking a more cautious approach, as Google's Lorraine Twohill explains.

"I think there's some nervousness still about putting stuff in storage on the web, which some people are looking at. I think a lot of your content on your PC you wouldn't want to access from anywhere because there are security issues.

"I think there's a balance between having certain parts of it accessed from everywhere - stuff like e-mail, blogs, photographs. But other parts, that are documents of yours, you want them close to home."

Yahoo Search and Google
Part one:
Part two:
Part three: Search engines take on talk
In the past few weeks we have looked at some of the ways the major web players are trying to keep us coming back for more. But for how long will they be able to keep offering us free storage-hungry features like voicemail and unlimited photo storage?

"As more and more of our information is electronic, is being whizzed around the world using e-mail or VoIP or IM, our storage needs are going to grow and grow", says Lisa Jones of Net magazine.

"That is one area that could perhaps differentiate someone like Google or Yahoo. How much are they willing to give us, how safe is it, will it be free?"

Yahoo's Nick Hazell adds: "We really recognise that we have a responsibility to our customers around the privacy and safety of their information, and we take that really seriously.

"So we do provide redundant storage, we back up storage and we guard very carefully our customers' information and photos, for example."

Stuart Anderson, from MSN, says: "When people talk about storage they're typically thinking about storing files and pictures. In 12 months time, I'm sure we're going to have the same conversation about 'where am I going to store my video?'

"That's going to require more storage, and there's always going to be someone who's going to offer it for free and so it's an ongoing battle. Leave that problem with us, we'll try and offer it for free as we always want to. That's what we're building our business model on."

And they do seem to be bringing out cool new stuff pretty much every week. In the last few days Google has released its new-look desktop search toolbar, and in the next fortnight or so MSN will start trialling a new version of Hotmail.

So that might wrap up this look at some cool new web features, but I have a feeling we will be revisiting the subject pretty soon.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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