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Google Unveils Instant Messaging, Phone App

Google Talk, for instant message and PC-to-PC phone calls, will use the open Jabber protocol, and it'll be ad-free.

Continuing its relentless product release schedule, Google, Inc. today introduced Google Talk, a free downloadable Windows application for instant messaging and PC-to-PC voice calls.

The Google Talk software requires a Gmail account, which until today has been available only by invitation. But going forward, Google is making Gmail accounts more widely available.

Users seeking Gmail accounts can authenticate themselves using a mobile phone number. A text message will then be sent to the corresponding phone with an authorization code. Entering that code online unlocks a single Gmail account. The phone number used will be retained to prevent further Gmail registrations.

"We want to make sure no one person can get hundreds or thousands of accounts with one phone number," explains Georges Harik, director of product management for communication and collaboration products. "The reason for doing this verification is to protect our system from abuse."

Google's system relies on the XMPP, or Jabber, protocol. That means those favoring operating systems other than Windows or alternative IM clients, including Adium, iChat, GAIM, Psi, and Trillian, can connect to the Google Talk network and send IMs.

Because XMPP is an open protocol, developers have an opportunity to add value to the network. "If a game developer or a productivity developer decides they need to have instant messaging in their application," Harik says, "they can just program to the XMPP spec and they'll be able to let people connect to our network using their Gmail IDs but inside the developer's application."

Harik says that Google is committed to open standards and interoperability with other networks. He says support for Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is likely and notes that Google is already working with EarthLink, which has its own Internet voice service.

According to Harik, talks with AOL, Skype, and Yahoo are already underway. And now that the secret is out, Microsoft can expect a call. "We will shortly start conversations with Microsoft," he says.

Google's goal is a unified, abuse-free messaging network. That's something many IM users will welcome, given the fragmented IM market. According to Internet statistics company comScore Networks, Inc., the leading IM applications were AOL's two offerings -- the subscribers-only AOL Instant Message and AIM standalone application -- along with Yahoo Messenger, and MSN Messenger Service with 41.6 million , 19.1 million, and 14.1 million active users respectively in July.

While Google's grand unification theory may find favor with users tired of IM's historic Balkanization, the company's hope for a network free of misuse seems naive. In July, IM security vendor Akonix Systems Inc. warned that the number of attacks against major IM networks had increased nearly 400% from the first quarter of 2005 to the second. And that's a trend that's likely to accelerate as the networks become better connected, offering malware writers a larger, more tempting pool of potential victims.

Eager to address privacy concerns, Google wants users to know that it does not track the content of IM chats or voice conversations. It does, however, track certain log information to maintain statistics on usage and to improve service.

And Google Talk doesn't display ads.

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