Judging from the creativity and diversity of Google Labs’ products, it seemed only a matter of time until they entered the instant messaging market. Therefore, it was no surprise for me to hear today that Google released Google Talk, an instant messenger application for Windows. It was simply the curiosity to see and try the new gadget they created.
The instant messenger market has evolved a lot in the past few years, from very simple applications to complex clients integrating all kinds of features. A recent study showed that teenagers consider e-mail “old-fashioned”, while instant messengers are their favourite way of communicating with friends. The major players in instant messaging world — AOL, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo — developed their own messengers and constantly added more and more features appealing to the young generation, such as avatars, animated backgrounds and music, graphic emoticons (smileys), webcam and voice communication, and so on. Other features tied the messengers closer to other services offered by the company’s site, such as news and stock ticker, weather data, online radio stations, electronic greeting cards for all occasions, and many more. Over time, these messengers became packed with so much stuff, that they no longer were only instant messengers, but information aggregators as well, loaded with extra features not related to messaging.
Other instant messengers were following closely. Developed by third parties, they didn’t attempt to integrate extra features, but to provide basic messaging with all proprietary networks for people who didn’t want to run Yahoo’s or MSN’s messengers, for instance, or who didn’t want to have several messengers running when they could have an all-in-one solution, or even to use instant messaging on operating systems not officially supported by the major players mentioned above. These third party messengers were facing a constant problem, though: they did not have access to the companies’ closed-source communication protocols, so they had to reverse engineer them. And, just when they thought they’ve got everything right, the companies were making slight changes to the protocols, just to keep those third party messengers out of their networks, because they weren’t bringing any revenues through advertising or associated services.
In the mean time, a new instant messaging system was being developed: Jabber. Being open-source and based on XML, it quickly became a success for alternative instant messengers, private and public messaging networks, and compatible messengers. Moreover, Jabber messengers can also communicate with proprietary networks.
The instant messaging market seemed saturated and well-balanced. Not to Google, apparently, since they released Google Talk. I thought, what could this new instant messenger possibly offer that the others don’t?
The answer is: simplicity. This is the first word that comes to mind when you run Google Talk for the first time. The installer is merely 899 kB, ten times smaller than MSN’s or Yahoo!’s messengers, and it doesn’t pollute your web browser with search bars or a new start-up page. The program’s interface is clean, white, simple to the point of austere, just like Google’s front page. There are no colorful buttons or menus, but a few text links that change color when you roll the mouse cursor above them. There are no tabs with extra information or services. The options for program’s functionality are very few and the only customization of the application window one can make is… resizing it. No skins, no colors, nothing. Shocking, eh?
Then, you add a friend to the list, using his or her Google Mail address, and open a message window to say a few words. It’s a white, clean, simple window, with no graphic emoticons, no different colors for nicknames, not even the ability to change your own nickname displayed to the other person! The only buttons present are for sending an e-mail to the person and to start a voice call. Where are all those buttons cluttered in most other instant messengers? What happened to my power of personalizing this thing? The white background burns into my eyes, aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!
Just kidding. Don’t be fooled by the minimalistic design. Pleasant surprises start appearing after you use the program a little longer. Open two message windows and you’ll notice how they group together with only one conversation displayed at a time and the others minimized as horizontal bars (docked), thus minimizing wasted screen space. A single click makes another conversation active, hiding the previous one. Notice how different visual elements change color when you roll your mouse cursor over them. Observe how the Google guys implemented all the good graphical user interface principles into this application, making it so intuitive and easy to use. Its power is its simplicity. Its purpose is instant messaging — and it does that well. No point in invading your screen with birthday reminders, news alerts or online radio, or eating up your computer’s resources with heavy graphics and animations.
With Google Talk, Google questions the direction taken by the other instant messengers when they added so many unrelated elements, and takes us back to the basics of instant messaging. Google Talk is probably the most functional, non-intrusive, efficient and well designed messenger out there, doing only what it is supposed to: sending and receiving messages. It’s like a hammer in the toolbox; you expect it to work well, not to turn glittery pink or dark blue to reflect your mood.
I love the voice chat of Google Talk. It sounds crystal clear, even better than Skype, without delays or interruptions. Getting the microphone close to the speakers doesn’t make them whistle; I’m really curious how they solved this problem of microphony! It doesn’t require a fast Internet connection either; in my test, it performed excellent with a peak of 6.4 kB/s throughput which can be easily sustained even through dial-up. The communication quality is displayed by 5 bars, like the signal meter of a cellular phone, and so far I did not notice any voice chatting problems through firewalls or routers.
Text messaging, as I said, is very basic, but functional. There are no graphic smileys, no offline messages or group chats. But, messaging uses the Jabber protocol, so other people with Jabber-compatible messengers can connect to the Google Talk network. Also, it supports Unicode, so all the characters specific to various languages will be properly transmitted and displayed.
Overall, Google Talk appears to be the beginning of a wonderful thing. It is just the bare messenger now, with basic functionality for messaging and voice chat, but with an enormous potential for further development. In time, new features will most likely be added, but I’m sure Google will keep the interface as simple and functional as possible. At the moment, it is probably too early to switch to Google Talk from another instant messenger because you will most likely miss some features or have difficulties finding your friends. Google Talk uses, after all, Google Mail accounts, which are available only on invitation from an existing member. In the future, however, I expect Google Talk to grow, improve and turn into a serious competitor to the major messengers out there. Keep an eye out on its development. I know I will; can’t wait to kick out that Yahoo! Messenger monster!
Update: Others’ interest in Google Talk is amazing. Reviews and personal experiences appear on countless blogs, even a Google Talk page on Wikipedia appeared. I have learned that the Google Talk servers support TLS encryption for messages which works for Gaim, for instance, but is not yet implemented in the Google Talk client (messages are sent in plain text, which is easier to eavesdrop on). Text can be formatted with bold or italic by enclosing it between asterisks and underscores, respectively. Text can be even made bigger or smaller by holding the Control key while rotating the scroll wheel on the pointing device, with the input box active. The main window can be set to stay on top of all applications with a simple registry change, and there’s an “easter egg” built in as a game. Some people went as far as editing the executable with specialized tools to change the color theme, as described here.
According to one of the developers, Google Talk clients will soon appear for other operating systems; the Windows development team was ahead of the others. Google Talk is only based on Jabber protocol, but it doesn’t include GPL code, so it will not be open-source either. That would break the license for the voice chat protocol as well. Google didn’t indend to create another one-client-for-all networks, but their own Jabber-based messaging network. What’s great about it is the excellent client that is going to cover most used operating system, but also embracing other instant messengers people got used to.
There’s one not so obvious aspect regarding this client: corporate messaging. In recent years, instant messengers started replacing telephones and voice mail in medium and large corporations. Creating private messaging networks for various companies has been a competitive business. Google Talk is a functional, powerful, bare platform to build a custom corporate client on, with cutom requirements or interface or add-ons. Using Jabber also lowers licensing costs for the company messaging server, too. Considering that Google provides so many free services for millions with little advertising, the company still needs to make a revenue somehow. With Google Talk on portfolio, I bet they will be targeting corporate messaging soon, as well as other related services.