At first, I was excited by this announcement since I use Gmail, but I can see some definite disadvantages here for fans of AOL, iChat, and Trillian ... or if you like downtime, since you might not get any.Earlier this week, Google announced it added AIM's IM engine to its repertoire so you can chat with your diehard AOL buddies right inside Gmail. The addition is an expansion of Google's embedded Google Talk product, which went live on Gmail in February 2006.
Mike Jazayeri, senior product manager at Google, raved about the features in his blog post, adding that non-English versions are coming soon.
"Best of all, the features you love most about Gmail chat, such as chat history and automatic sorting of your buddies based on frequency of communication, work seamlessly across your Google and AIM buddies," Jazayeri said.
To try it, look for the big red banner on the top left the next time you check your Gmail. In the right navigation, you can click on the upside-down triangle next to "set status here" in your Gmail chat and select "Sign into AIM" from the drop down menu. Once you've entered your AIM log-in information, your AIM contacts will appear intermingled among your Gmail contacts, and you can select an AIM contact and chat with them directly.
So I decided to give the AIM functions in Gmail a test drive and after about 20 minutes of kicking the tires ... I turned it off.
The first obstacle was that I needed to upgrade to IE 7, which has so many holes, that even after a full year of patches, developers still hate to work with it. The second turn-off is that I need to sometimes log out of AIM when I use Gmail. This may not sound like a big whoopp-de-do, but not every time that I check my Web mail do I need people to see that I am online. My third complaint is that the interface is boxy, restricted to a few areas (bottom right on IM screen launch), and if I have my separate AIM client open, it confuses the various IM Ports and gives me the same message in both places.
My biggest beef, however, is that Google Talk is not reciprocal with AOL ... or iChat, or Yahoo or MSN for that matter.
I have been living on instant messaging since 2000 and because of several online e-mail accounts with AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, I managed (read: was forced) to sign up for their IM products as well. Don't get me wrong, I love IM. It's a fast, easy way to interrupt someone and the perfect time waster. [Check out MSN's Bad Santa story for example.]
But, I was particularly excited when Cerulean Studios launched Trillian and I was able to compile several accounts into one dashboard. The only exception was any Jabber-based IM client such as Google Talk, which I tested in 2005 as a standalone product. Being somewhat of a cheapskate, I continuously refuse to pay Cerulean for Trillian's Pro version, which does connect with Google Talk.
I liked some features in Google Talk, when I was asked to test it in 2005. There weren't a lot of users two years ago, so I barely touched it. It's much better now. The interface is hard to get used to if you've used other IM clients, but at least Google has a more mature approach to icons and emoticons than do AOL, Yahoo, and MSN.
Now for the good stuff. Adding AIM into Gmail was a wonderful stroke of luck. One less separate application to launch saves on CPU cycles and it screams Web 2.0, which is what we like to see here. It's also a further step toward promoting Jabber, which is an XMPP open standards messaging client.
A third benefit is that if I'm at a PC that I do not own, I do not need to hope it has AIM, Google Talk, or Trillian installed. This will be valuable when I buy my iPhone. I can even take a conversation "off line," meaning that Google won't officially store the conversation to its network. This can be a positive or a negative since retrieving an IM conversation can be helpful for jogging one's memory, but hurtful if your Gmail account gets compromised.
Lastly, Gmail and AIM may set wheels in motion for more long-range partnerships (read: acquisition) and competition with Microsoft and Yahoo, who seem to want to share their IM clients with each other.
UPDATE: A reader named Nate just pointed me to Pidgin, which is a free client that includes compatibility with Google Talk. The same company has a Unix/Linux/BSD client called Finch. And there is a compatible multi-IM client for Mac OS X called Adium.