is to venture further beyond its core search engine business with an instant messaging and online voice calling service that takes it into greater competition with established telecommunications companies round the world as well as a growing list of rival online services.
The new service, Google Talk, also marks an ambitious attempt to create an open platform on the web for voice calls and instant messaging, a move that could challenge the “closed” instant messaging networks run by rivals Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft’s MSN. Last week’s announcement that Google planned to raise about $4bn by selling shares fed speculation that it would use the cash to branch out into new services, perhaps by acquiring a company such as Skype, an early leader in internet telephony.
The launch of its own service, announced on Wednesday appears to indicate instead that the company intends to build a network from the ground up, using a different approach to that taken by better-established rivals.
Google took its first step into the communications business last year with the launch of Gmail although it has made no secret of its ambition to go further. Eric Schmidt, chief executive officer, has listed search and communications as the “killer applications” of the internet. The push into communications “is extremely significant”, said Allen Wiener, an analyst at Gartner. “To be a web portal or a new media company, this layer of communications and mail is essential people use it to access and share content.”
Mr Wiener said that, in spite the power of its brand, Google was likely to find it difficult to build a network quickly to rival the instant messaging networks. Yahoo, AOL and MSN each has tens of millions of regular users and is adding a voice service and, in some cases, free video conferencing.
Users of these services are able to message or talk only to others on the same network, a shortcoming Google hopes to turn to its advantage.
Georges Harik, director of product management, said that, by basing its network on open technology standards, Google aimed to encourage other internet companies from operators of online games networks to internet service providers and operators of large-scale websites to build their own services on top of Google Talk. “We aim to create an ecosystem around [an open communications platform] so that it’s in everyone’s interest to be open,” he said.
Google Talk, a free service that lets two computer users talk or exchange messages, will be available only to people who already use Gmail.
Google said Gmail, until now an invitation-only service, would be available to any internet user in the US provided they gave a mobile telephone number as a confirmation of their identity, though this would eventually be extended to users in other countries.
Besides openness, Google is counting on better sound quality to attract users. Like other online voice services, most calls will be connected over the public internet, although Google said it would use its extensive data network, built to run its search service, as a last resort to ensure calls got through as planned.
Branching out from search has prompted questions about how far Google will eventually expand from its stated goal to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Making it easy for people to talk and exchange information instantly online “remains well within our mission”, said Mr Harik.
As part of its diversification away from the search function, Google launched on Monday an upgrade to its “Desktop” its free software that allows users to launch programs on their PCs. The move is seen as part of its latest encroachment on Microsoft the upgrade of the free software also mirrors many of the functions of Microsoft’s windows.