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Last desktop app standing: IM Client

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Google Apps, Zoho Suite, Buzzword, and even Adobe PhotoShop – it seems nothing stands in the way of the web monster that is gobbling up desktop applications, chewing them up and spitting them out as a web applications. But there is one application that could just be the last hold out on the desktop – the instant messaging (IM) client.

Instant messaging, like email found popularity in the early days of the consumer Internet, it is one activity that has only gotten more popular with passage of time. The desktop IM clients, popularized by America Online’s AIM are still amongst the most used pieces of software, and have not only survived the Web 2.0 revolution but are thriving.

And that is despite the availability of easy-to-use and simply elegant web-based IM services such as Meebo. Why is that? “There is a lot of functionality that is being built into the IM client,” David Hersh, CEO of ichat1.jpgJive Software, said during his presentation at the GigaOM/E-Tel LaunchPad event held earlier this week.

He argues IM’s position as prime real estate on the desktop makes it ideal for becoming the hub of open standards based real time communications. “It is a much richer environment,” says Hersh.

Real Time with IM

Using protocols like Jabber, SIP, XMPP (extensible messaging and presence protocol), and Jingle (for peer to peer multimedia sessions) – the IM client can do everything from voice calls to presence management to plain vanilla chats. An IM system based on these protocols is going to be quite handy in the corporate environments, where technology departments want to exert more control over their communications infrastructure. (No wonder Adobe is interested and bought Antepo.)

And then there is the familiar user interface!

Over ten years old, most of us are quite used to the basic (and rather simple) user interface of IM clients. The user behavior doesn’t require that much adjustment to adopt and adapt to the new functionalities that are being added to the IM clients. Even seemingly complicated tasks such as web-based conferencing and file sharing are as simple as sending a simple message.

Future full of features

The Gizmo Project is a good example of a new age IM client. Despite is panoply of features it doesn’t feel bloated or drags down the performance, and yet it does so much. Apple’s iChat is another good example of a highly integrated communications tool that is fairly simple to use.

Even Skype that takes the gold standard for proprietary standards has made it easy for folks to do video chats, make phone calls and even act as a bridge between wireless and wireline phone worlds.

Mobile goes the IM

One of the biggest reasons why desktop IM client will survive is because of the growing popularity of mobile IM services. Our contact lists entered painfully over the years is the ultimate social network, and is mobilized quite easily. This convergence of the desktop with mobile is something that is only helping grow the IM messaging traffic, and is

Anecdotally (and completely unscientifically) speaking, given that Google is willing to spend gobs of money on its Google Talk initiative despite being unfashionably late to the party shows that future isn’t all that bad for the desktop IM client.

Now that’s what I think! What do you think? IM survives on the desktop, or are these question


  1. 2004: The Incredible Importance of Instant Messenger
  2. 2005: Long term impact of Voice over IM
  3. 2006: Big, Fat & Bulky: State of the IM Nation

Photo: Apple Inc.

44 Responses to “Last desktop app standing: IM Client”

  1. The corporation as the last bastion of the im client makes sense… that environment will be the last to give way to web services. However, if Mark Benioff has anything to do with it, it might come a lot sooner than people think.

  2. Stan Miller

    I think a lot of these web-centric companies are targeting the Saturday morning cartoon demographic.

    Responsible parents have locked down their PC’s, so the only alternative is to run web hosted apps.

  3. Om,

    The entire genre of applications that are heavy and complex are still very much desktop apps. All Mechanical and Electronic design is done on the desktop, for example. I believe, Architectural design as well. Same with Industrial Design.


  4. Om, I hope you uninstalled iPhoto, iTunes, Address Book, iCal, Apple Mail, etc from your Mac before you wrote this post, or at least swore off using them.

    “nothing stands in the way of the web monster that is gobbling up desktop applications, chewing them up and spitting them out as a web applications”

    Nothing, except bandwidth. Seriously, I must live in the wrong part of town, because last I checked, I don’t have an always-on, fast (and I mean FAST) broadband connection, which is a presupposition for the theory that desktop applications are dead.

    Great user experiences shouldn’t have caveats, whether that caveat is the speed or availability of your bandwidth. This is why I am a firm believer in marrying the advantages that a native client app with local storage has (rich, faster than broadband experience, flexible UI, offline capability) seamlessly with the advantages of a thin-client experience (remote backup, collaboration, etc). The combined whole is bigger and better than simply the sum of the individual parts.

    Let’s take Outlook and OWA (Outlook Web Access) in the corporate email world — exact same application experience delivered thru a browser and a rich client. How many people go into work and login to their OWA account thru Firefox when they have the option of using Outlook desktop client instead?

    A hybrid user experience, which provides the best of both worlds to people, bridged seamlessly by an sync server like MS Exchange makes sense to me, which is our vision for the Sharpcast platform. For those that are curious, check out Sharpcast Photos 1.0 and you’ll see what I am talking about.

    I scribbled down a few more thoughts about this in a blog entry I wrote a few months ago:

    Granted I have a biased and strong viewpoint on this, but this really isn’t a fair argument until Om uses only Firefox and his IM client on his Mac.


    Gibu Thomas
    CEO, Sharpcast

  5. There’s just one big elephant that everyone touting online apps continues to ignore: online apps are only good online. November 2006 saw 60.2 million airline passengers, averaging roughly 2 million passengers each day. If only half the passengers are on business and only half of those passengers are traveling to site that is not owned by their own company, then at least 500,000 business people each day are out of touch with an online connection and need a desktop app of some sort to conduct business. This does not include people who are simply across town for a meeting, which is obviously a much greater number of people.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love and use online apps myself, they have their place, but imagine showing up at a sales presentation in a customer office knowing that your financial spreadsheet on the project you are presenting is safely stored on a server on the Internet–but your customer has a properly locked-down LAN with no access for outsiders and you cannot reach the spreadsheet to prove the ROI of the project. Does that mean you reach for a handy print-out and a magnifying lens to peruse the columns of figures? Not a good or forward-appearing solution. Oh, and we did not mention how the presentation materials were presented without a desktop app (think Powerpoint) because there was no access to some future available online presentation program.

    Online apps are great for folks who always have a nearby online connection, whether in their own office or physical social area. But, as evidenced above, there are hundreds of thousands of people a day doing business without access to the online world, and that’s why desktop apps will survive until the day there is a constantly-on, online presence everywhere.

    Some observers here have the correct idea, online apps need to have some presence and ability on the desktop, or quite possibly the relationship needs to start the other way around. Sorry if this seems like a rant, but people are forgetting the obvious and jumping a long ways into a future that may never happen for a number of reasons.

  6. Nagesh

    There is fundamentally nothing that prevents you from ditching the desktop version of AIM in favor of the web version – AIM Express and now, thru AIM Web APIs (, you can even build your buddylist into your blog etc.

    I am guessing that Excel, Word and bunch of other familiar desktop apps are not going away anytime soon, however much I may be in the awe of mighty Google.

  7. Sridhar, I am in the same situation, only using linux instead of the mac.

    The only annoyance is the skype for linux. Its development is way behind that of the windows version. That’s probably an opportunity for its rivals.

  8. I find myself living in the browser more and more, and that is one reason why I have found using Mac & PC interchangeably has not been that hard. In a true sense, the browser has already become the OS for me, with the addition of IM.

  9. Why make a distinction? Live in the browser AND live in the desktop. Widgets coming for business applications are web connected desktop tools. These work with the legacy desktop systems and web systems but are fed with live web data.

    We have a great example called GoPart. It looks and feels like desktop tool, it works with other desktop tools, but it is really a web technology.

    see what I mean –

  10. I believe IM will survive on the desktop. You hit it right on the head with Skype…their video calls are the best I’ve seen…and I’m looking forward to see the result of Google’s investment in GTalk.

    GTalk hasn’t changed much in a LONG time. I just hope they don’t make it too bloated.

  11. I think you’ll see a time when IM is no longer considered a desktop application, and maybe that means IM will slowly move to browsers, or that the IM client will start to take on features that make it more like a browser. It’s already pretty close under the hood — they are often doing HTTP over TCP.

    There are also advantages to web applications over desktop ones, for example being able to use them from a remote location without doing an install (think of coffee shops etc). You can’t pull that off with a desktop application.

    They still have a ways to go, but I was pretty impressed with meebo or whatever it is. Still not enough to make me give up the desktop IM client, but it’s not far away.

  12. Stan Miller

    Adding to my earlier comment, I think web-centric apps have their place. I just prefer to host them in my computer domain and have the option to access them both locally and remotely via a browser.

    That way I can better control my attention data as well as minimize my exposure to service downtime.

  13. John,

    Thanks for the catch. I had him written as CEO of Jive SOftware, but somehow it got deleted when posting it to the site.

    Anyway thanks for the catch – fixed and updated.

  14. ronald

    A managers view of computing or the future of computing.
    We have hired this clerk (computer) to do some things for us.
    Like filing and retrieving files, also to help us write our reports. Mostly by having him retrieve Data for us, which we could change or interpret. Over the years to get more work done we have made him run faster and faster but not smarter, we still have to tell him exactly where to put files and how and from where to retrieve them.
    In the process we actually worked also longer hours since there’s the illusion that we got more work done when we have more access to data faster. But we have clearly reached it’s running limit, running faster doesn’t work anymore. Now we got him a phone (web) so we can reach him from anywhere anytime and to make him more efficient in business terms, we share him with many other people. But explaining him over the phone what we want him to do is cumbersome and he can only be efficient if he does the same thing for a lot of other people at the same time.
    So what’s the future. Hire a smart clerk who can work independently from us and doesn’t require constant supervision.
    Yeah I know nothing to do with IM. But it was fun while having my coffee. Relax.

  15. John France

    You attributed Dave Hirsh as the CEO of Meebo, which is incorrect. He is the CEO of Jive Software and Seth Sternberg is the CEO of Meebo.

    Both are great, innovated leaders

  16. Why desktop OR web – Why not have the best of both? There is another peer to web (p2web) model that blurs the boundaries between the desktop and the web. You get to keep your rich desktop apps but with web like sharing simplicity over a browser.

  17. Right on target Om!

    I am at the office, and right now I just have firefox and skype running. Today, I opened the gimp for a few minutes, and that’s about it.

    Of course it depends on what kind of work you do, how much time you spend on the same computer, how many places do you work, etc.

    But the fact is that, for many “executive” geeks, all you need to do your job is a browser and the IM of your choice. And we set the trends ;)

    Om, I listed you on my February’s 15 favourite sites!

  18. No way–desktop IM is dead. Just look at the advantages of doing IM in a “place”, like Campfire offers, and the way you can do Flash videoconferencing with no setup and several friends online at Extra functionality with desktop apps? No way. The infinite computing power online will overcome that shortly.

    Like with all these other apps, the ease of getting started and advantage of access from anywhere will make IM apps in the cloud much more appealing going forward.

  19. It is a look and feel thing – although I live in my browser, IM is something I do not want in there. I rather start the Google Talk client than have it in my browser – it does not interact right.

    But to be honest – the IM application open all day in my case is Mirc. Because even after some features have been around for over a decade, tools like Skype are still not able to copy them decently. Public chat room anyone? Notification etc?

    Instead of using something like Gizmo and get all of my contacts to connect with that, we do go back to irc.

    If we do have the need for fon, we can bring up skype / gtalk if we like, if there is need for video (which seldomly is) we have tools as well. Which we will fire up for the event, but not for general usage.

    IM of the future for me is a tool which uses the protocols i want and need, has an interface I like and most importantly handles attention data right.

    Meaning: I want to set per channel and per chat how it behavious in blinking, beeping and alike. Scripting for most used features. Easy access and configurable.

    Did I mention settings per channel and chat for attention grabbing? :)

  20. Two years ago reading this article I would have said that the IM apps aren’t going anywhere. Since then I’ve done most (75%) of my IMing on the Tmobile Sidekick phone. The other 20% I’ve done on meebo. Only 5% of my time is using a standard app, and thats ONLY to receive a file or do a video/voice chat.

    As the web based and mobile IM’s get stronger the aggregators will win. So I’m with stigsen and Rob from 53miles on this one. :) Can’t wait to see how it plays out.

  21. With the way browser technology is, why can’t the IM client simply be an icon on your desktop that opens up a non-navigational browser window? It’d look and feel just like the real deal, except no installation.

  22. Stan Miller

    The future is and always will be on the desktop. What’s really improving is how we can remotely access that computing power and applications through the browser.

    Users will always want to be in control of their computing domain and the richest experience will be sitting in front of the computer.

    I’m not about to give up my Trillian client for Meebo.

    Hosted web apps are like public transportation. Some users will ride the bus, but most will prefer to drive.

  23. These web apps have their place. For example, its great that a family can share a spreadsheet now by using Google’s version of Excel. But damn, that thing is in no way as usable and responsive as a real desktop app is like Excel.

    I use online SnipShot to do some quick edits with photos. But again, if my needs are more intensive I just need to go back to the desktop app.

    I love web apps, I build them for a living. But I also love my Mac, and need it’s desktop apps. What I’d like to see is more marriage between the two. Like if Photoshop or Google had a desktop app, could seamlessly use the web based files (without going through import export steps each time), that would be steak sauce.

    For example, I use 37signal’s Campfire for instant messaging with a few people. As most people are aware, 37signals builds web apps. But I went ahead and downloaded a Desktop interface for it called Pyro. The thing has lots of cool integration with my operating system.