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The Instant Messaging wars could be over sooner than you think, thanks to an inspired investment by the French.

The open source instant messenger project Jabber has been blessed with a major investment from a leading telco, namely France Telecom, which has agreed to fund development to the tune of $7m. France Telecom will take a 23 per cent stake in the commercial Jabber company, Webb Interactive Services, which employs many (but not all ) of the far-flung Jabber developers. Jabber.com shouldn't be confused with Jabber.org, which is where the community hangs out.

Jabber is an XML-based alternative to ICQ, AIM and fellow travellers, but without much of the dogmatic potential for disaster that seems to beset XML initiatives. That's not to besmirch XML, rather than to point out that it uses XML sensibly and sparingly, rather than the write-a-C-compiler-in-COBOL implementations we're starting to see elsewhere.

But all that's beside the point.

Jabber clients - which can be found on Windows, Mac, Linux and many other platforms - may be lacking in many of the features we expect from today's bloated instant messaging clients (voice calls, file transfer, etc) but it has a feature the others don't really have.

Jabber's built around the idea of presence: finding friends or like-minded people who may be in your virtual vicinity. Conventional PCs don't connect quite like this - if you're geeky enough you can reverse-directory their IP addresses - but of course mobile phones do. They can link the virtual to the physical, as each client device knows exactly where it is.

So France Telecom has stumbled upon a backbone for handheld peer-to-peer communications that makes SMS look positively Neanderthal.

As wise men have argued, punters are far more willing to spend money on point-to-point communications than on buying crappy, pre-packaged, warmed-over 'content', so France Telecom may have stolen a march on the rest of the slumbering cellular networks, and done so with typical Gallic flare. ®

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