On the Soapbox

The Google Talk Tragedy

Monday, September 25, 2006
Keywords: Technology

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 bill@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 bill@example.com 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...

  1. 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.
  2. 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 screenname@aim.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.

Domain Registrar Product Rave

Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Keywords: Technology

A number of years ago, when I registered a domain at GKG, I was quite pleased with what they had to offer. Domains were only $10 per year, which was less than the best-known budget registrar at the time, Dotster (which is the domain registrar that I was using before GKG). In addition, they offered free e-mail forwarding and e-mail privacy in WHOIS (instead of listing my real e-mail in WHOIS, they listed a @whois.gkg.net e-mail that then forwards to my real e-mail). And for just $5 more per year, I could get a POP3 mailbox for my domain. This was just a couple of years after the end of the Network Solutions monopoly on domain registrations, so competition was just starting to warm up, and at the time, this was a pretty nice package.

So for nearly half a decade, GKG has served me well. But they've been stagnant while the rest of the domain registration industry has undergone massive changes due to intense competition. Network Solutions, once the holder of a government-sanctioned domain registration monopoly now has a market share of less than 9%, and GoDaddy, helped by their infamous Super Bowl ads, is now the top registrar, but only with a 17.5% market share. It's a diverse market with hundreds of ICANN-accredited registrars, and of the 77 registrars with over 100,000 domains, GKG is only the 56th largest.* In addition to lacking the sort of colorful marketing of registrars like GoDaddy, the package that GKG offers with each domain has remained the same over all these years. Their price of a domain registration has dropped slightly to $9 to match GoDaddy's price, and the price of the POP3 mailbox has increased to $8 (not that it matters much, as I now use Google Apps for Your Domain for domain e-mail services; see my previous blog entry for more on that).

This brings me to the 6th largest registrar, Schlund+Partner, better known as 1&1 Internet. According to Netcraft, its $6/yr registration ($3 less than GoDaddy's or GKG's price) is the lowest regular non-promotional price of all the major registrars. And it offers basic DNS hosting/management,** a free 1GB mailbox with with POP3 and IMAP support, e-mail forwarding/catchall, and free private WHOIS listings (which cost an extra $8 at GKG or $5 at GoDaddy) so that in addition to hiding my e-mail from the WHOIS database, it also hides my name, address, and phone number from the WHOIS database. So for $6, I can get what GKG would've charged me $25 for.*** One of my experimental domains is about to expire in a few months, so instead of renewing it with the existing registrar, I'm now in the process of transferring it to 1&1. All my other domains won't expire until late 2007, so I won't bother with transferring them until later.

* And for those who care, DreamHost is 58th, but at its current rate of growth, it should overtake GKG very soon.

** It's not very advanced, but it does save me the trouble of getting a ZoneEdit account for sites that have fairly simple DNS needs.

*** Of course, I don't actually choose to go with the $25 package from GKG because GAFYD is now providing e-mail and while private registrations are nice to have, they are not necessary.

The Domain Wars

Monday, September 18, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Back in November 2005, Microsoft announced a cool new service called Windows Live Custom Domains. With this service, if you owned the domain name example.com, you could now create Hotmail (a.k.a. Windows Live Mail) accounts of the form user@example.com. You provide the domain name, and Microsoft provides the server and infrastructure necessary for an e-mail service at that domain name. It's useful for small companies who can't afford to run their own mail server but who want to give their employees professional-looking e-mail addresses at the company domain. It's also useful for owners of personal domains who want e-mails at their own domain name. While this sort is service is hardly new, there was one important difference: this is free. Microsoft had become the first of the major e-mail providers to offer a free domain e-mail service.

A few months later, in February, Google launched Gmail for Your Domain (which was expanded on and renamed to Google Apps for Your Domain last month). Google's service is similar to Microsoft's. If you own example.com, you could now have a Gmail account at user@example.com and you could sign into Google Talk using user@example.com. The differences between the two are the same as the differences between Gmail and Hotmail: there's more space (Google offers 2 GB vs. Microsoft's 250 MB), a better webmail interface (though that's subjective), and most importantly, secure SMTP/POP3 access, which allows Gmail--and thus Google Apps for Your Domain--to be used with proper e-mail software (e.g., Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Eudora, Apple Mail, etc.).

Recently AOL has joined the fray as well with the My eAddress service. Now this is where things start to get interesting. While Microsoft and Google are BYOD (Bring Your Own Domain) services where you provide a domain name that you own, AOL will register a domain of your choice for you. Apparently, for free. Which means that you won't have to pay for a domain registration, which will save you about $9 per year. Like Google, AOL is offering 2 GB of space. And like Google, AOL's e-mail service can be used with proper e-mail software like Outlook Express, Thunderbird, etc. However, while Google offers support for e-mail software through the POP3 protocol, AOL is offering it through the arguably better and more fully-featured IMAP4 protocol. And if AOL is offering all this for free, it begs the question, why the heck are they doing this?

In the case of Microsoft, it is a rich company trying to become the gatekeeper of the Internet by pouring money and resources into establishing their new Windows Live brand and strategy. Furthermore, without POP3 or IMAP support and with a much smaller storage limit, Microsoft isn't offering very much to begin with. In the case of Google, they are hoping to offer the Google Apps for Your Domain service as a premium service--a "business solution" for small companies and organizations. Google is currently in a beta stage, so the service is free for now, and they have promised to keep the accounts created during this beta period free. But what about AOL? Their offering is the grandest: free domain name and IMAP support, but do they have a strategy that merits this extravagance? They could offer the service for free now and then make it a premium pay service later on. And since AOL is doing the domain registration for you, they will technically own the domain, which will give them a sort of blackmailing power over you if they decide to make it a pay service (pay up, or forever lose these e-mail addresses), whereas if this was a BYOD service and you owned your own domain, you could easily jump ship and set your domain's MX records to point to any other service offering e-mails for domains or even to your own servers and thus preserve all those e-mail addresses. However, AOL has stated that they are working on allowing people to use their own domains and that BYOD is not allowed at the moment only because the service is so new that they haven't gotten around to supporting that yet. So if AOL follows through and offers BYOD support, then, if you opt to use your own domain, there will be nothing to prevent you from switching service providers the second they decide to do something unpleasant with their service (granted, the typical AOL user would not be tech-savvy enough to know how to do this). Additionally, unlike Google, AOL has not stated intentions to make it a pay service, so a course reversal there would bring bad PR for them at a time when they're spending so much time and money trying to heal the AOL brand image. So I think that AOL is caught up in a me-too fever and is outdoing everyone else simply for the sake of outdoing everyone else and not for any rational business purposes, which certainly won't be a first for AOL. ;)

Finally, where is the last the Big Four? Yahoo! has been offering services like this for many years now, but it has always been a premium service. According to their website, they will charge you either $35/yr for a single address at your domain, or $120/yr for up to 10 addresses at your domain (in contrast, Microsoft's free service offers 40 addresses per domain, AOL offers 100, and Google offers anywhere from a minimum of 25 to the thousands, depending on how many you request at signup). The prices are less if you provide your own domain. So it would appear that this crazy domain services fever hasn't reached Sunnyvale yet.

This entry was edited on 2006/09/18 at 17:31:35 GMT -0400.