October 07, 2009

A Dying Protocol

I don't like speculative posts. It is easy to come up with the perfect solution, and outline it in a blog post. Thousands of people have figured out how to fix the financial crisis, and how to perfect health care— if only the president would read their blog. There is no shortage of "How to save…" posts. The newspaper industry, the music industry, Yahoo!— the list goes on and on. And even when these ideas do pass a speculative stage, and get backed by proper research, they still don't always work out- such as EBay buying Skype, Google buying Dodgeball and Jaiku, or Time Warner merging with AOL.

The beauty of speculative posts is that they can't be proven wrong. That is also their downfall— they are too easy to do. After all, it is easy to justify on paper, when millions of dollars are not at stake.

That being said, here I go. Here is my suggestion on how to save Instant Messaging.

Instant Messaging has always been a mess— from the beginning, the major IM protocols have promised they would someday all work together. It would be absurd for Hotmail users to not be able to email GMail users, or Verizon customers to not be able to text AT&T customers— yet over a decade later, we still cannot IM someone using Yahoo! Messenger with our AIM screen name.

We do have a bit of a fix, however— clients like Digsby, Pidgin and Meebo bridge this gap by letting us use multiple protocols at once. Not idea, however it works.

I was talking to a few people, and they said they don't really use AIM anymore. It got me thinking— there has to be a way to save AIM (and all Instant Message protocols). AOL has tried— they keep throwing features at AIM, in order to make it better. But in the process, they are slowly just making it worse by creating a bloated program. AIM is dying, in the same way that MySpace is dying— it is far from dead and never will be, but it is not exactly picking up steam.

So, if I may indulge myself in a little speculation— who can "save" them?

Facebook. And Meebo.

Rather than start up their own protocol, Facebook should have bought Meebo. This way, they could allow people to IM their friends right from Facebook, without having to add another "protocol" to the already large and unruly list of current protocols.

Here is why it makes sense:

  • Facebook already has everyones screen names: Facebook probably has the worlds largest database of personal contact information— so they could attach some privacy settings to them, and allow users to IM their friends AIM/Yahoo!/MSN screen names right from the site. They already have everyone's screen names, so they could easily populate the buddy lists for anyone using Facebook.com.
  • Screen Name and Facebook Taboos: A negative of having screen names on Facebook is that it's somewhat awkward to IM someone using a screen name you got from Facebook. There's a stigma attached to "Facebook Stalking"— even though people willingly divulge information on Facebook and consume it obsessively. Can you get away with IMing someone and saying "I got your username on Facebook"? Yes, if you must. However, it's still a taboo. IMing someone on Facebook is much more acceptable, for whatever reason— so if AIM and Facebook were combined, maybe it would be easier to start up a casual conversation without seeming like a creep. "I saw you were online" is a lot less creepy than "I went to your profile, copied your IM screen name onto my buddy list, and waited until you signed on."
  • Time on Facebook.com: Right now, a majority of people can only use Facebook chat from Facebook.com. You can of course use a third party client like Digsby, however most people go to the site. Clearly, this is intentional— Facebook wants people to stay on their site as long as possible. However, the problem is that you can only talk to people on Facebook.com. I may be on a computer for a few hours, but if I only check Facebook once in a while for a few minutes at a time, it will be hard to catch me.
  • Facebook Connect: Facebook could take Facebook connect a step further by combining it with Meebo for Sites. In my opinion, is this a benefit to me? Not really. But Facebook is always looking for ways to seep into other websites.

So, there is my speculation on how AOL could have salvaged AIM, one of its last remaining relevant properties. Would it have worked?

I guess we will never know.

About Gregory Koberger

I'm a freelance developer and designer, formerly of Mozilla. I talk a lot about web development, technology and user experience — sometimes on my blog but mostly on Twitter.

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