You think instant messaging is popular now? Just wait: the technology may appear in everything from mobile phones and word processors to washing machines.
"We are looking at integrating instant messaging in every application we can," says Francis deSouza, product manager for Microsoft's instant messaging products. He says Microsoft will put IM into Windows Office applications Word, Outlook and others.
Moving instant messages beyond teenage throngs was a prime topic at the recent Instant Messaging 2000 conference. It was organised by Pulver.com, which develops voice-over-IP technology.
Most attendees, representing a mix of Internet and telephone technologists, said they plan to juice existing applications and services with some aspect of IM technology.
But conspicuously absent from the proceedings was IM behemoth America Online.
Its nonattendance is typical of AOL's unwillingness to rally around one elusive standard that would permit interoperability among IM technologies, said Jeff Pulver, chief executive officer of Pulver.com.
In its defence, AOL says it will help any company integrate AIM technology into products and services if consumer privacy and security are protected.
IM's future goes far beyond the consumer desktop, attendees said. Soon, you will be able to thank IM for real-time traffic updates by mobile phone, live customer support at your favourite electronic merchant and timely requests from your inkjet printer to "please get more ink".
"Instant messaging will be one of the key technologies shaping how we communicate in the future," said Brian Park, a senior producer for Yahoo's communication products.
Buddy lists will appear on virtual phones, wireless pagers, and digital music players, Park said. "Instant messaging will be the glue connecting your PC, PDA, phone, pager, TV and car," he added.
Already, IM has made inroads into corporate call centres and customer support operations, Pulver said.
But pushing IM another step requires industry cooperation, participants noted.
The primary stumbling block: no IM standard exists.
AOL dominates the field with a whooping 115 million AIM and ICQ users. While it supports an open standard in theory, AOL has blocked attempts by Microsoft, Yahoo and others who tapped into AIM and ICQ networks to create compatible messaging programs.
If you can't beat 'em, do it without 'em, was a prevailing attitude toward AOL's tight grip on the IM market.
AOL's dominance is "the Berlin Wall" that's stalling progress in the IM industry, Pulver said. But the chat version of "perestroika" has begun, he added. As more companies band together, AOL can't afford to go its IM road alone.
"We have entered into a number of agreements with IBM, Novell, Lycos, EarthLink Network, Apple and Juno Online Services," says Tricia Primrose, an AOL spokesperson. "We remain willing to work with anyone in the industry." The Internet Engineering Task Force, a volunteer organisation, is also working on specifications for Internet standards, including IM.