The Google Talk Tragedy
Monday, September 25, 2006
It has been over a year since Google Talk was released. It has, unfortunately, not caught on. While this does not bode well for Google, the real loser here is Jabber and the entire Internet community as a whole.
What the heck is Jabber, and why should I care?
To describe Jabber, one needs to first understand the essence of the Internet. I am sure that most people have met someone who thinks that www.msn.com is "the Internet". There are many who think that the Internet is some monolithic and centralized thing, which it is not. The Internet is like a road network. Like a road network, it is composed of smaller networks and road segments that happen to be connected to each other (a country's road network contains many different local city networks and even private driveways). There is no central authority (the Federal government may have control over Interstates, but it has no control over a local residential street); instead, the Internet is an interconnected collection of smaller independent networks.
This decentralized nature of the Internet is mirrored in how e-mail works. Like the Internet, there is no central e-mail authority and there is no centralized magic hand that makes e-mails go where they are supposed to go. When you e-mail email@example.com, the e-mail server that you are connected to asks example.com's name server what its mail exchange (MX) server is. example.com's name server might reply by saying that its MX server is located at mx.example.com. Your mail server then hands the mail over to mx.example.com, and mx.example.com then takes it from there: if mx.example.com recognizes the user bill, it will place the mail in his inbox; otherwise, it will report that the e-mail address is invalid. If example.com does not run its own mail server and instead outsources its e-mail handling to a mail service (for example, Google Apps for Your Domain), then its name server would report that its MX server is located at aspmx.l.google.com and the mail would be sent there instead. Like the Internet, there is no central authority in mail. Mail works by millions of decentralized mail servers passing messages to one another, and these mail servers know which server to pass messages along to based on what MX servers are listed by the domain after the @ in the e-mail address.
Jabber is an instant messaging system that works using the same principles as e-mail. Jabber screennames take the form of user@domain-name and as a result, Jabber screennames are usually identical to someone's e-mail address. When you send firstname.lastname@example.org an instant message using Jabber, the server that you are connected to asks example.com's name server what its Jabber server is. example.com's name server might reply by saying that its Jabber server is xmpp.example.com. Your server then hands the instant message over to xmpp.example.com, and xmpp.example.com then takes it from there: if xmpp.example.com recognizes the user bill and this user is online, he will receive the message. If example.com does not run its own Jabber server and instead outsources to a third party (for example, Google Apps for Your Domain), then its name server would report that its Jabber server is xmpp-server.l.google.com and the message would be sent there instead. Does this seem awfully similar to how e-mail works?
In contrast, existing proprietary instant messaging systems are closed. If we look at AOL's new @aim.com e-mail service for AOL Instant Messenger users, we can easily see the difference between a closed system (AOL Instant Messenger) and an open system (@aim.com e-mail). When using a closed system like AOL Instant Messenger, you can send instant messages only to other users @aim.com and you can receive instant messages only from other users @aim.com. When using an open system like e-mail, you can use your @aim.com e-mail address to e-mail people @gmail.com, @hotmail.com, @verizon.net, etc. And you can receive e-mails from those places as well. Could you imagine the enormous outcry there would be if AOL suddenly said that people with @aol.com and @aim.com addresses can only e-mail each other and not receive e-mails from the outside? This is because people are used to e-mail being an open system and few have even considered the possibility of instant messaging working in the same open federated fashion as e-mail. If e-mail had turned out the same way that IM did and if you had friends on six different e-mail networks, then you will need six different e-mail accounts just to get in touch with them! It makes no sense for e-mail to operate in this fashion, and for instant messaging to operate like this is equally absurd.
Quick summary: The majesty of Jabber...
- A Jabber address is similar to (and can be the same as) an e-mail address. In the future, as voice and video is added and as the grossly obsolete phone number system is finally stamped out, people can communicate to each other using a single unified contact address for e-mail, chat, voice, and video.
- Jabber is a decentralized, open and free system. There is no central Jabber authority.
- It is not proprietary.
- People can communicate with each other regardless of what network they are on and who is providing their Jabber service.
- The Jabber system is more reliable. Server outages will only affect the people who rely on that particular server and not the entire instant messaging world.
- Individual server operators can have more control over local operations and can customize and innovate the service that they offer while still maintaining compatibility with the rest of the network. For example, when Google introduced voice calling over Jabber, people using Google's service can do voice chats with one another. Other Jabber servers can choose whether or not to adopt this new feature, but they can still communicate with Google's servers using the traditional text method.
- Companies can run their own Jabber server and provide all their employees with a Jabber address. If they wish, they could create a secure, isolated Jabber network for internal-use-only, much like the some internal-use-only e-mail systems.
Google rides in on a white horse...
Jabber was born in 1998, but it existed in the shadows of obscurity. Some companies adopted it for internal use and some ISPs such as EarthLink set up Jabber servers for their customers, but for the most part, it never really took off in a field dominated by Microsoft, Yahoo!, and AOL. A year ago, when Google joined the IM wars with Google Talk, it did things the non-evil Google way and used Jabber instead of proprietary technology. Finally, a major IM provider has adopted Jabber!
...and then it stumbles and falls off the horse...
The problem with Google Talk is that I love Google Talk. When it came out, I abandoned the other IM services in a heartbeat, switched to Google Talk, and never looked back. Putting aside the fact that Google has done such a wonderful thing by supporting Jabber, I loved Google Talk because it was an IM client that seems to have been written for computer nerds. The interface was beautifully spartan. Text was used in place of pictures wherever possible. There were no flashy colors. Emoticons were properly displayed as text, and early versions did not feature those hideous annoyances known as buddy icons. It was, in my opinion, everything that instant messaging software should be, which meant that it was doomed to failure because people like me are a small minority in a sea of people who love colors, cutesy fonts, graphical smilies, buddy icons, etc.; for the vast majority of IM users, Google Talk was completely unacceptable. And so despite the backing of the coolest name in technology and despite the popularity of the Gmail service that Google Talk was linked to, it has faltered and failed to take the world of instant messaging by storm. And that does not bode well for Jabber and for the future of open instant messaging. Google fumbled, and it tragically squandered a golden opportunity.
...but there is still hope...
When Google bought a 5% stake in AOL last year, it also announced that Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger would one day be able to talk to one another. The easiest way for this to happen is for AOL to offer a Jabber transport which would be like a gateway for Jabber servers to communicate with AOL's servers. AOL's introduction of @aim.com e-mail addresses and their marketing campaign trying to get people to think of the AIM screenname as email@example.com will help greatly in AOL's conversion to Jabber. So if AOL does implement Google Talk interoperability (it will soon be a year since the making of that announcement, and there has been no progress update) and if it does it in the easiest way available to them (which is to Jabberize their network), then there may still be hope for Jabber yet.