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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 February 2006, 09:28 GMT
Mobile push for instant messaging
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Display at 3GSM World Congress, AP
Messaging is one theme at the 3GSM World Congress
Some of the biggest mobile phone networks have joined forces to push instant messaging (IM) over mobiles.

Fifteen operators, including Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and China Mobile have agreed to work together to make it easy to IM across networks.

The motivation to get IM working on mobiles is driven by its huge success on the net. By getting people using IM on a mobile instead of a PC, the operators believe they can start to generate decent amounts of money for data services.

The mobile phone industry is looking to repeat the success of text messaging.

In December, British mobile users sent 3.1 billion text messages, more than ever before according to the Mobile Data Association.

All those short messages add up to big bucks for operators. Up to 20% of their profits, according to some estimates, result from the relatively high price customers pay every time they tap out a text.

Message matters

Third-generation mobile networks make the whole IM experience more bearable.

"You can implement IM in a more satisfactory way because of improved bandwidth and reduced latency," said John Delaney, principal analyst at consultancy Ovum.

Operators have a high degree of control over price and user conditions. But within two to three years that will be out of their control
John Delaney, Ovum
Third-generation networks can carry more data and move it around far faster so messages really can be instant.

This is important because IM conversations typically involve more back and forth than text message chats and it ensures that the experience is similar to that enjoyed online.

"The technology is not the barrier any more," said John Hoffman, chief executive of mobile IM firm Fast Mobile. "The devices are out there and they have the data capabilities to handle this."

The big problem, said Mr Hoffman, were the splits between the operators of the online IM networks.

The messaging networks of AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft were almost closed shops, said Mr Hoffman making it very difficult for mobile firms to offer access to them all at once. The networks are starting to link to each other but only slowly.

If the mobile operators have learned anything from text messages, it is that interoperability across networks is absolutely key to making it popular.

The agreement announced at the 3GSM mobile phone trade fair in Barcelona is designed to tackle some of these obstacles.

Under the initiative, the 15 operators covering 700 million mobile phone users have agreed to use a single standard for IM, which would work across networks.

The operators are looking to launch instant messaging mobile services later this year.

But Mr Hoffman said work also needed to be done on handsets to make IM conversations easy to follow.

At the moment most of the interface software on phones simply arrange messages by when they arrive. Far better would be to arrange them by both conversational thread and time.

Another complication that needs taking into account, said Mr Hoffman, was the fact that IM conversations are often between large groups of people rather than one-to-one like text messages.

Cash call

Operators are also worried that committing to IM could dilute their brand. All the big names in IM are net-based and no operator wants to hand over that much control to what may become a competitor.

Bill Gates, Reuters
Microsoft is signing deals with other IM networks
Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have all made moves on messaging, be it instant or e-mail, on phones.

This helps explain, said Ovum's Mr Delaney, all the partnerships being signed between the net's IM giants and mobile operators.

This works well for both sides as the operators see more use of data services and the IM firms get experience with the mobile world.

"Operators still have a fairly strong role as the gatekeeper on what people do on the net through their mobile telephone," he said.

But, said Mr Delaney, this role as gatekeeper will be steadily eroded as IM firms get more aggressive and consumers realise that what they do online, they can now do via their phone.

"Operators have a high degree of control over price and user conditions," said Mr Delaney, "But within two to three years that will be out of their control."

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