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Points Of Presence

Editorial Director, Communications ASP

[June 29, 2001]

Windows Messenger: The Gateway To VoIP?

Now that my father has discovered the benefits of instant messaging, I think I can safely say that the majority of people with Internet access have at least tried this technology for text chat. I remember when I first began using ICQ (now owned by AOL) in 1997. After moving from Connecticut to Oregon, it was a great way to stay in touch with family and friends on the East Coast without the hassle and prearrangement required to meet up in a chat room. And now that I'm back in Connecticut, I use AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) to chat with my parents in Oregon. Each of AOL's two messaging clients has its own merits, and I actually prefer ICQ because I think it's easier to navigate and exchange files and URLs. I don't understand why the company hasn't consolidated the two clients and created one giant pool of users, but perhaps a plan to do this is in the works.

In any event, sometimes text chat is no substitute for the nuances and inflections audible when speaking on the phone; yet it's free, as long as you're already paying for an Internet connection. Free PC voice calls are also enabled using both AIM and ICQ, although not as widely used as text messaging. But that could be about to change, as Microsoft is ready to take PC voice into the mainstream with Windows Messenger, a voice-enabled instant messaging platform that will be bundled with its XP operating system, scheduled for availability on October 25.

According to Microsoft, Messenger supports Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a departure from the NetMeeting messaging client, which supported H.323 for VoIP calls. NetMeeting 3.0 was bundled with the Windows 2000 operating system, but many in the industry believe the SIP choice for Messenger will propel the protocol into mainstream acceptance. Messenger uses the Microsoft .NET Messenger Service to work with nearly 32 million MSN Messenger users, and can also use .NET Enterprise Servers or work with third-party SIP servers. It enables users to participate in voice and video communication, text chat, and data collaboration, notifies users when their contacts are online, and offers a Remote Assistance feature so users can quickly obtain online help.

Microsoft's Windows Messenger, a voice- and video-enabled IM solution.

Microsoft believes Messenger will enable new types of interaction like multiplayer gaming and customer relationship management (CRM). The client offers built-in echo cancellation to reduce feedback for audio calls, and Microsoft plans an upgrade to support PC-to-phone calls through users' service provider of choice. It also offers about 70 ms of delay, as well as a variety of codecs.

Voice chat capability in instant messaging is nothing new, and NetMeeting has supported PC calling for years now. ICQ also supports PC-to-PC, phone-to-PC, and PC-to-phone calling with the ICQphone, and ICQ and AIM both incorporate Net2Phone's technology to enable PC calls. But Microsoft is banking on an easy user interface and visibility on the desktop to propel Messenger, and multimedia messaging, into the mainstream. And it is also marketing Messenger as a platform for the development of enhanced multimedia applications and services -- not just as an instant messaging client. In an interview with CNET, Bill Gates spoke about NetMeeting, "We have had this feature in Windows called NetMeeting, but it was obscure enoughand various things were hard about it. We are taking NetMeeting and making it mainstream with Windows XP."

There are a lot of unanswered questions about Windows Messenger, such as whether the voice capability will work through a firewall (always an important issue for me and my always-on cable connection at home). But whether or not Microsoft wins the instant messaging wars with this new client, it's sure to bring VoIP and multimedia capabilities to consumers and enterprises that otherwise would not have known about it.

Laura Guevin welcomes your comments at lguevin@tmcnet.com.

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