At 3GSM yesterday, the GSM Association announced an instant messaging initiative. I heard it verbally from a friend at the show — my initial reaction was ho hum, this will never fly. That was before I read the press release in detail and talked informally with some of the people involved.
My initial reaction was based on mobile operators’ long standing affinity for walled gardens and their quite logical desire to promote their own brands whenever possible. Also, the big IM vendors covet a cut of the mobile revenue, making any arrangement difficult. So despite the Wireless Village initiative and efforts of mobile IM startups like Oz Communications, mobile IM remains a niche, especially in comparison with the roughly $50B global market for SMS messaging.
But mobile operators are learning. With SMS, nobody made serious money until there was nearly complete interconnectivity. The operators noticed. In addition to the GSMA’s IM initiative, there are dozens of interoperation agreements already in place. It appears that nearly universal mobile IM interoperability will be available in major markets this year — probably India first, then the UK and other EU markets near the end of 2006. < But not the US, of course… >
As the press release makes clear, the mobile operators are, so far, only dealing among themselves.
Eight of the world’s largest operators, China Mobile, Orange, Telefonica, TeliaSonera, TIM, T-Mobile, Turkcell and Vodafone, and the GSM operators in India - Aircel, Bharti, BSNL, Hutchison Essar, Idea, MTNL and Spice – are gearing up to roll out IM services that adhere to the core GSM principles of ease-of-use, security, reliability, interoperability and initiating party pays.
Guy Kewney points out, they have made no attempt to recruit existing IM giants to participate and in any event, “AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! have waged all-out war on anybody who ever tried to unify their user bases.”
So why do I think the mobile operators could really score here?
Because presence is personal and mobile handsets are the personal communications device. Your PC is not available and connected all the time. Your mobile is. Also, there are many teenagers who share a family PC, but each have their own mobile. If any handset can participate in a common mobile IM scheme, it may not matter that the kids were using AOL or MSN — whole groups could flip in an evening. And in countries like India, where mobiles far out number PCs, the Internet IM leaders AOL, MSN & Yahoo! won’t matter anyway against a universal mobile IM scheme.
Yes, it will take 18 months or more to get enough going, but this is one initiative that going to shake up the market. Who knows, it may even drive AOL, MSN & Yahoo! to federate.