Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Instant Reply Needed? Try Instant Messaging

August 27, 2002
By Seng Li Peng

Email has remained the undisputed killer application on the Internet, serving as the faster and cheaper alternative to snail mails as well as a preferred tool to phone calls. However, emails sometimes sit unread or are not delivered because the intended recipient's mailbox is full - among other reasons.

Living in a world where we often need responses instantly, such inconveniences can be frustrating. This is where instant messaging (IM) can become a wonderful savior.

If all the important parties we want to be in constant contact are within the same IM community, instead of guessing, we can immediately check who's online and offline. IM also helps eliminates expensive phone bills, says Peter Steyn, director of Nielsen/NetRatings. In addition, "IM allows users to instantaneously transfer over files (documents and pictures) without file size limitations," says Rose Leng, regional marketing director, MSN Asia.

Lucrative Business
The concept of real-time IM was pioneered by four 20-something Israeli avid-computer users in 1996 who created a product called ICQ (I Seek You) under their company, Mirabilis Ltd.

The brilliant idea was created after the founders observed that while millions of people were connected to one huge worldwide network -- the Internet -- they were not interconnected with one another, says spokesperson Joshua Danson. Hence, ICQ became the link for willing users.

Seeing how lucrative ICQ became, AOL decided to acquire it for more than US$280 million in 1998. That very same year, Yahoo launched its own version of IM, and in 1999, Microsoft's MSN also followed suit.

Although AOL has its own IM product, "there is a very little overlap (less than seven percent) between the AOL and ICQ products," says Danson.

According to a study by Nielsen/NetRatings, AOL Instant Messenger took the top spot as the No. 1. IM application, attracting more than 22 million unique users, or 21 percent of the total surfing population at home in the US in May this year. MSN Messenger drew nearly 15.7 million Internet users, Yahoo! Messenger attracted 12.4 million and ICQ had nearly 4.4 million during the same month. Hence, while AOL is predominantly popular with American users, ICQ appeals to the international users.

So popular is its IM with worldwide users that ICQ will be launching a new product called ICQ Lite for them.

"This is for users who want the basic features of ICQ in a quick and easy-to-use package. ICQ Lite will therefore provide a simple, streamlined interface for IM with convenient access to ICQ's most popular features, such as: file transfer, SMS, multilingual messaging, and the ability to search for users via their interests using ICQ's popular keyword search functionality," says Danson.

Today, ICQ (which gains a new registration every minute or more than 100,000 new registrants daily) has more than 135 million registered users worldwide. About 22 percent of these users are in Asia including China, its biggest market, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

For MSN, taking into account just six countries in Asia, it has already garnered an impressive eight million unique users as of July, 2002.

Says Leng: "In our efforts to increase the Messenger user base, it's not only important to convince a new user to come onto Messenger, we also need to get all his friends (buddies) to use the service as well. So the success of marketing Messenger relies heavily on viral marketing."

Between December 2001 and July 2002, MSN saw its unique users in China jumped 105 percent, but Korea remains its biggest market today.

"In Korea, we have run a couple of successful MSN Messenger campaigns targeting heavy IM users such as university students and people who like using 'emoticons'. We have the most number of emoticons which users just love," Leng adds.

In case some are thinking that IM is a 'kids' tool, think again. According to Gartner, by 2004, 60 percent of real-time communication, including voice, text or call-and-response, will be driven by IM technology. It has also predicted that by 2003, 70 percent of enterprise employees will be using IM services at the office.

For corporations who are concerned that their employees may be spending too much time chatting about everything but work matters via IM, take this advice: "We've seen in the past the same concerns about the personal use of the phone, email, or Internet in the corporate environment. Like any of these tools, IM can be abused. But with proper training, the productivity enhancements of IM outweigh these concerns," says Michael Becker, Director Product Marketing, Ecrio Inc., a company that provides instant communication application and infrastructure software.

Breaking Down The Walls
"Currently, all the IM providers each have their own niche communities and are isolated walled gardens. A critical success factor for the future of any IM service will be the interoperability between services and the extension of them to the wireless networks," says Becker.

"The other thing that IM providers need to do is to extend IM usage beyond the PC experience to the wireless world, including SMS, WAP, and MMS," he adds. "Historically, IM has been a PC-to-PC experience, but it is not a far stretch to bring it to the wireless world. SMS has been wildly successful, and it is not all that different from IM. The key difference between the SMS and IM is presence and availability management."

"With SMS, we assume that a user's mobile phone is switched on and that the user is available, but this might not be the case. We have no presence control. While with IM, the user actually has control over their presence. They can consciously inform people when they are available, in a meeting, or hide themselves from one or more users. This control dramatically improves the user experience and enhances next-generation messaging services," Becker elaborates.

IM providers are not slow in realizing this.

Says Danson: "We believe that demand for new services including mobile applications will continue to grow, a reason why we have remained strongly committed to short message service (SMS) as well as ICQ handheld applications.

While MSN currently only allows its email users to receive and send mails to and from their mobile phones, it will be launching its Mobile Messenger in Asia later this year. "This new service will combine the best of both worlds and you can see your buddies' availability over the phone", says Leng.

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