In another example of how online applications are becoming richer and more useful, Yahoo announced today that it will embed instant messaging into its web-based email program within the next few months, allowing users to partake in live chats from Yahoo Mail and to obviate the need for installation of a desktop IM application.
With the new feature, users will be able to see if their contacts are logged on to Yahoo Mail and easily chat with them. They will also be able to see the online status of contacts who have Yahoo Instant Messenger, chatting with them as well. Eventually, they will be able to chat with MSN Messenger users too. Yahoo and Microsoft made their instant-messaging applications interoperable in July.
The auto-complete function in Yahoo Mail will indicate if a contact is online, and starting a chat will be as simple as clicking once, Yahoo said. Users will also be able to easily send a copy of chat sessions to people in an e-mail and to copy e-mails into chat windows.
Garlinghouse told CNET that the new embedded-IM feature will be introduced to Yahoo Mail users in the next couple of months. Today Yahoo Mail users receive presence indications as to when their Yahoo Messenger contacts are online, but they must have IM clients installed on their PCs if they wish to initiate IM discussions.
While neither AOL nor Microsoft has integrated chat into their online email programs, Google offers IM integration in its web-based Gmail messaging service. According to Rafe Needleman of CNET’s Webware, however, the degree of IM integration provided by Yahoo goes beyond what Google delivers:
In the new version of the Yahoo Mail beta, which will roll out "in a few months," you can start to compose an e-mail just as you always would, but if the recipient of your e-mail is online (on Yahoo IM, MSN IM, or on Yahoo Mail), you’ll be able to exchange your e-mail composition window for a chat window. Or, of the recipient comes online while you are writing an e-mail, you’ll get an alert, and will be able to invite them to chat. When you do, the e-mail you’ve been writing will get copied into the chat window. Likewise, if you’re chatting and they drop offline, the transcript will get copied into the window as it changes from chat to e-mail.
This integration should make it very easy to maneuver between the two communication types, and it will also help people new to IM to get with the program. It doesn’t require a downloaded IM client; directly from the Yahoo E-mail web page, you’ll be able to chat with anyone.
As Needleman suggests, the next step for Yahoo and Google, as well as the others, is to add voice and video conversations and conferencing to the mix. It seems inevitable that all the major players will offer integrated online unified communications.
A continuing problem, as I’ve noted here before, is the lack of support for the SIP signaling and session-management protocol standards, as well as for IM and presence protocols such as XMPP and SIMPLE.
Although we will see compelling unified-communications services online, they’ll be disparate islands or silos of communication. Side deals, such as the one between Microsoft and Yahoo, will provide degrees of interoperability, but we’re a long way from an open, standards-based approach, such as the one that gave us the SMTP protocol and the seamless communications ubiquity of email.