The Six Biggest New Ideas In Chat

Instant messaging has become a part of daily life on the web. I use several different services depending on what I want to do and who I want to talk to. AIM is great for keeping in touch with old friends, Meebo or eBuddy for signing on anywhere, and Skype for business interactions. I use these different services because of their strengths in certain key features. Companies like Meebo, Skype, Wablet, and AOL-acquired Userplane are pushing these features forward with the next generation of instant messaging on the web.

Real time communication is one of the most innovative sectors on the web today. Below are some of the big ideas emerging in web instant messaging as it stands today and the services that exemplify them.

1. Interoperability
After the initial success of AIM and ICQ, several other chat services popped up. Services like Trillian, Gaim, Adium and Miranda developed hacks to communicate across the different protocols. After a period of “cat and mouse” where AOL fought interoperability by making small changes to AIM, cross-platform interoperability has become a standard feature in most new chat programs. Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger announced interoperability this summer. AOL now has an open development API and Google Talk runs on the open Jabber protocol. Clearly, open standards are here to stay.

2. In-Browser Chat Express was an early version of chat programs that split away from a downloadable client and ran in your web browser instead. Services like Meebo and eBuddy have developed richer user interfaces by using AJAX and bridging chat protocols. Sequoia backed Meebo (rumored $3-4 million), and Lowland funded eBuddy (5 million Euro) continue to slug is out over this space. Meebo branched out even further by allowing embeddable chat on any website through their MeeboMe widget. Meebo has had steady growth since we covered their numbers last December. Daily logins and message volume have grown 5 times over, at 1.2 million logins and 70 million messages per day. Meebo claims 4.5 million monthly uniques and 700,000 Meebo user accounts. With the uptake in social sites, browser-based IM has brought chat to the places users are on the web.

3. Location Based Chat
Instant messaging programs connect people across the internet. Newer programs like RadiusIM and Meetro, connect people by their real-world location. RadiusIM is an AJAX application, while Meetro is a downloadable client. Both allow you to fill out your location and profile as a way to meet new people in your area, or even another country. Unlike the other developments in chat, location based IM hasn’t seen heavy adoption on other platforms, which continue to connect people based on a user generated buddy list.

4. Flexible Identities
As web personal profiles have grown on the web, so has the need to separate your private and professional faces. While users can handle this problem through managing various IM handles, Flash-based Wablet (our coverage) made profiling a central feature in it’s system. Wablet allows you to create multiple personas with different profiles. You can then embed these chat windows on the web and control which persona each visitor sees. In the near future, Wablet is incorporating OpenID. Chat service ScribbleHere currently works with OpenID.

5. Contextual Chat
Several new start-ups have popped up and changed the context of instant messaging from buddy lists to websites and interests. While similar to the old IRC chat rooms by basing conversations around topics, companies like Me.dium, Geesee, the newly launched InCircles, OthersOnline, and 3bubbles have incorporated your location on the web into chat in different degrees.

3Bubbles is an embed that adds a post specific chat window to every blog post. GeeSee goes a step further and connects users across sites based on tags so, for example, all technology blogs can share a common chat room. InCircles, which is embedded for testing here, operates similarly but is optimized for blog sidebars. OthersOnline and Me.dium incorporate surfing habits to connect users of similar interests. Both are browser plugins. OthersOnline focuses on connecting people who frequent the same websites and have similar profiles, listing similar users in drop-down menus. Me.dium is a bit more anonymous in their approach, connecting users by handle based solely on their presence at related websites. Your relationship to your friends and other surfers is displayed on a “radar” map, which shows you other users visiting the site your on or others like it.

6. Rich Media Chat
Web cams and microphones have been on the web for a while, but the growth broadband, VOIP standards, and mainstream incorporation through services like Skype, Google Talk, and Yahoo! Messenger have expanded their use in chat programs. Skype and Yahoo! support calling to land lines and mobile phones (Skype is free until the end of the year). PalTalk creates voice chat rooms that can host conversations between thousands of people together at once. While voice and video does not lend itself to simultaneous conversations many IM users carry on, rich media integration brings a subtleness and depth absent from text-based IM.