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So, will IM replace SMS?

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News from 3GSM that some of the biggest mobile phone networks are planning to join up to push instant messaging (IM) over mobiles needs a little thought. The PC community has long settled into islands of IM services which can almost never talk to one another.

This is not so much due to technical difficulties (which is often claimed to be the case), but is down to unwillingness of the various suppliers to adopt the same format.

As we understand it, Microsoft has always wanted to communicate with other IM systems on other networks such as Yahoo, AOL and Google, but its motives are clearly to reach onto those environments and replace the customer reliance on their home software and effectively undermine their rivals.

Which is why programming teams work night and day and issue constant release updates from those companies in a vigil to ensure that interoperability is impossible. When in actual fact for the customers it is desirable.

So why don’t Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and China Mobile see it the same way, and why are they happy to work together to make it easy to IM between networks?

We believe this is borne of the same fear as the other wired IMs. The cellcos have a long history of having bridges to competitor networks. After all, communication is what their services are about. But what they don’t want is to sponsor an alien, possibly Microsoft owned, IM on their own handsets which might compete with SMS services.

What would be a total disaster for any of the cellcos is if SMS messages were diluted by IM, where that IM was supplied by someone else. It could take as much as 20 per cent of most operators' profits away at a stroke. And Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Google and Skype have all announced initiatives to put their services, such as email and IM software onto handsets.

Under the initiative, there are a total of 15 operators including those listed above plus O2, Telefonica, T-Mobile and Turkcell, covering 700m mobile phone users which have agreed in principle to use a single standard for IM, across all networks from some point later in 2006. Vodafone and Orange also said that they want to be the first to get interoperability working, while Orange plans to offer a common IM service between Orange customers and Wanadoo broadband customers.

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