Web-based instant messaging company meebo on Wednesday plans to introduce new software that can turn any Web page into an IM client, calling into question the future of standalone IM applications such as AIM, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger.
The company's new IM widget, meebo me, lets social networking sites, blogs, and other Web sites make IM communication instantly available to online visitors while providing real-time presence information.
"With Hotmail, you can get on e-mail anywhere," says Seth Sternberg, CEO and co-founder of meebo. "Why can't you get on IM anywhere?"
That question, says Sternberg, led to the launch of meebo in September 2005.
Today, with a round of venture capital investment from Sequoia Capital last December, the company says it sees more than 660,000 logins daily and that its 2.5 million unique visitors worldwide every month send 43 million messages every day.
"Since IM has traditionally been client software, you can't really integrate client software with MySpace or eBay or Xanga," Sternberg says. "They can't talk to each other, and they can't interact with each other."
Through either meebome.com or meebo.com, users can obtain the few lines of programming code necessary to generate a meebo me IM box on a Web page. Once integrated into a Web page, the meebo me widget shows the comings and goings of visitors using the page owner's meebo buddy list.
"As people go onto that page, I can see them, so I know in real-time who's on my page," Sternberg says. "And I can talk to them in real time. Literally, we've embedded instant messaging into Web pages."
The company plans to monetize its widgets with ads. Eventually, there will be an option to remove the ad on a widget by paying a nominal sum, perhaps $1 per month, Sternberg suggests. Visitors have the option to disable the meebo me widget, in case they prefer not to announce their comings and goings.
The widget operates using the open Jabber IM protocol, so Jabber-compatible IM clients like Trillian or Google Talk should be able to interoperate directly with minor adjustments. Sternberg says an application programming interface that will allow other applications to access meebo data is in the works.
Sternberg doesn't believe Web-based IM will kill dedicated IM applications. Rather, he looks at meebo as expanding communications options.
At the same time, dedicated IM apps no longer appear to be necessary in the world Sternberg describes. "If you want to communicate with someone, you can just tell them your URL," he says. Google's decision to integrate Google Talk IM into its browser-based e-mail service demonstrates that point.
The developers of the major IM apps--AOL, MSN, and Yahoo--appear to be worried about the longevity of their IM fiefdoms. They've been adding features like PC-to-PC calling, plug-in compatibility, and improved interoperability to compete with rapidly developing multimodal communications tools such as Skype, which features IM and Internet telephony, and with upstarts like meebo.
Yahoo Messenger's growing user base--a 14% increase in unique users in the United States between June 2005 and 2006, according to online metrics company comScore--indicates that for the time being, the old way still works. Then again, during that time MSN Messenger saw only 5% growth, and AIM's user base remained flat.
Charles Golvin, an analyst with research firm Forrester, remains skeptical about meebo's impact, noting that by far most consumers use IM clients from AOL, MSN, or Yahoo. Meebo, he says, isn't even on the list of companies that Forrester asks about.
"IM is basically a loyalty app, and it takes a lot to dislodge people from their buddy lists," Golvin explains.
In June 2006, according to comScore, the leading IM apps in terms of U.S.-based unique users were AIM.com (31.2 million), Yahoo Instant Messenger (24.8 million), and MSN-Windows Live Messenger (22.9 million).
ComScore puts meebo at 141,000 U.S.-based unique users in June, and Google Talk at 44,000. (Worldwide, Google Talk counts over 3 million active users.)
Even so, Google Trends suggests that as many people are searching for meebo as they are for Google Talk. This may not be a particularly scientific statistic, but AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo should take note.