Blog Post

Big, Fat and Bulky: State of the IM Nation

This past week, while I was away in London, there was a frenzy of activity around the “instant messaging” client. Microsoft introduced its Microsoft Live Messenger Beta which is some rudimentary form cross talks with Yahoo Messenger. Yahoo opened up its IM and introduced new ways to add widgets to its client. Skype and Paypal did a bit of integration. In other words, all the moves that do nothing but add more bulk to the aging IM client(s).

Back in 2004, when I wrote The Incredible Importance of Instant Messenger, I pointed out that it is going to be a way to get some traction in the VoIP business, and hopefully will help the companies fight off the challenge from upstarts like Skype. More than two years later, most IM clients have VoIP calling. But they have a lot more than that.

I am with Jason when he says that AOL needs to put AIM on a diet. Most IM companies are forgetting that IM is a very personal tool whose emphasis is on instant communication. Everything else comes in the way. The more features that companies – the big three – cram into their products, the more they run the risk of alienating their user base, which frankly might migrate to newer IM options such as the MySpace built in IM.

“If all your friends are on Myspace and with the click of a button you can add 100 of your friends to Myspace IM, why bother with AOL IM anymore?,” writes Rich Greenfield, an analyst with Pali Capital in a note to his clients, and asks. “If AIM e-mail has not really worked, what are the odds that AIM extensions such as AIM Pages or AIM Phoneline will succeed?”

I agree. Those are separate properties and not to be pushed into AIM. It is time for not just AIM but to all other IM companies to rethink their approach. With this on my mind, it was pretty nice to invite Seth Sternberg co-founder and CEO of browser-based instant messaging company Meebo to join Niall and me on our weekly podsession. One of the things he said stuck in my mind – and I paraphrase – in this feature race, none of the companies are actually including things what users want – a quick and easy way to communicate. (You can hear Seth and us debate on our podsession by downloading it from here.)

17 Responses to “Big, Fat and Bulky: State of the IM Nation”

  1. It’s pretty simple. If the bulk of your time is spent in front of the computer playing video games (hiding out from the sun) you’re going to gain weight. I work with obese children, and they get so happy when they can run happy and free in nature.

  2. Hello!

    Could not agree more with you about the clients getting too fat.
    However even after carefully listening to your podcast I did not hear a single comment about FEDERATION.

    I can send email to anyone without knowing anything more than my partners email adress. I can send SMS/text messages from any mobile pohone to any other without even knowing on what network the receiver is. But with IM?
    So I DEMAND that all the big hats get together to finally move on with federation of their networks.
    Google & Gizmo did a great job with their open Jabber technology but MS, Yahoo, AOL, ICQ. … must follow so that IM can finally succeed.

    Just my few cents of wisdon

  3. what we need is a cross messenger functionality. like a person on AIM should be able to talk to a person on Yahoo or a person on MSN.

    also g-talk does not support offline messaging, which is simply a great feature that ICQ & Yahoo have.


  4. Om – I have used kozoru, however, it appears that Flowers is just using IM as a browser to house plugins (byoms). Kozoru is not and, to the best I can tell, will never be interactive, that is conversational.

    I’m not familiar with ookles…I will have to check them out.

  5. Justin

    Bloat is the reason why I use Trillian v0.74. It’s light, fast and works with Yahoo, IRC, ICQ, MSN, and AIM. For me, this is the perfect solution — I have no need for bells and whistles.

  6. funny you ask. i just saw the ookles demo this evening and well, they are well on their way. it should be while before they come out for public consumption, but they are getting there. i would let scott johnson make that call.

    kozuru is also on its way and launched recently with their first product. you should take a look.

  7. I think we give a little too much credit to the intentionality of the “lean and mean” and the “back to the basics” IM clients.
    (Google Talk and MySpace IM and Meebo)

    Skype was once in this category – and it isn’t so light anymore.

    The truth of the matter is that when you start building a new IM client from scratch, you start by offering:

    1. sign in/sign out
    2. adding/deleteing/managing contacts
    3. send/receive messages
    4. controlling your presence

    If you start your own new IM client startup from scratch, I bet it is going to be back to the basics.

  8. I’m interested to know if anyone thinks a semantic-based conversational search bot (think a smarter Smarter Child with Google results) deployed via IM would be useful?

  9. om,

    i got a couple questions:

    where is OOKLES. he got funded in your bathroom. now i want ookles. so where are my ookles ?

    also kozoru, what’s going on with them. did you try their product?


  10. Just listened to the podcast. Om, you got it right. Adding new features to IM clients or even doing product integrations (although that probably depends on execution) is not the way to go.

    IM is not about clients (whether legacy or web-based).

  11. I think you’re missing the point of these clients. They are chiefly loss-leaders for pushing people into other services that actually make money. If you don’t integrate these other services, what’s the point of spending money in development?

  12. I disagree. I’m using Yahoo! Messenger and I absolutely love it. It’s like a mini-portal/goto app. I can access my favorite features on this app that stays resident on my desktop. Yahoo! has achieved this capability while keeping a clean, small client app.

    With dual-core processors and GB’s of RAM, who cares about memory and a little power-hunger. Yahoo! Messenger is the best thing going on my desktop.

  13. Michael Griffiths


    I cannot, however, wholly embrace the approach that “people don’t want all the features,” and that “people will rejec feature-laden IM clients.”

    This is, of course, a given for most tech-orientated people. They like to focus on minnimum memory usage, and a very small number of features.

    But it gets complicated when the Big 3 integrate other services into their IM clients. They’re trying to displace MySpace and other social networking sites, making the IM contact list a built in Friends list, with links back to social Friends. Yahoo! has Yahoo! 360 and integrates into YIM, Microsoft has MSN Spaces which links into WLM, and AIM has AIM Pages. All three offer VOIP one way or another.

    Google is making its own bet, although it’s bypassing the Friends concept in favor of the email-list. It’s an interesting strategy, but no better than the Friends concept; to get the benefits, both sides have to be using Gmail and Gtalk, just as both sides have to use the same service for any of the Big 3.

    Their bet is FAR bigger than “just IM.” Which, let’s be honest, they’ve had for years now. The installed base has expanded, more people use IM, and so on. I can’t see a compelling reason to “focus on the basics;” it doesn’t look like there’s any future in that.

    If a company can grab the entire social network, using IM, VOIP, email, and blogging as a link they’ve suddenly grabbed 90% of the time that person spends on the internet. That’s more advertising revenue, more user data, and more targetting advertising. It means their services are sticky; they have high barriers to entry; and they turn into guaranteed revenue streams for each user.

    I simply can’t see focusing on a bare-bones IM client compelling in any way, given the immense revenue potential when they integrate and cross-promote services. So far, AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google are all playing the same game; none of them are doing anything at all disruptive.

  14. “One of the things he said stuck in my mind – and I paraphrase – in this feature race, none of the companies are actually including things what users want – a quick and easy way to communicate. “

    I am in the early stages of alpha testing “a quick and easy way to communicate” across all IM networks without installations, IM client changes or web-based “walled gardens”.

    Just launch your existing client, click and chat across all networks. It’s that simple.


  15. IM clients continue the industry trend of building hobbleware applications (with majority of resources being hogged by useless and annoying features – like adding shortcuts everywhere, and automatically starting up when they don’t have to, and an applications that exclusively check for updates)

    GTalk (you wrote about them getting a well-deserved founders’ award) is a noteworthy and refreshing departure from the trend.

    GTalk and Meebo have certainly gone to a “back-to-basics” approach to software design, which I only hope other software companies will follow.