Google is again expanding beyond its core search engine and pushing further into web portal territory with the launch yesterday of an instant messaging service with voice communications capabilities.
"At a high level, this indicates that, whether it likes it or not, Google is officially a web portal and a media company," says Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst.
The consensus has been that Google has to branch out from its search engine roots and build a suite of online services as varied as the ones from Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and America Online.
The main reason why observers feel Google needs to build up an arsenal of web portal services is that users aren't very loyal to search engines. However, users are loyal to web portal services such as instant messaging, photo sharing and webmail because they provide ways to communicate with others.
The other reason observers say Google needs to broaden its suite of services is that Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL have spent the past year aggressively venturing into the search space, Google's stomping ground.
Thus, industry observers have speculated for many months that Google would develop a consumer-oriented instant messaging service to compete against those from AOL, Yahoo and MSN. The speculation is over now that Google's IM service, Google Talk, is finally here.
To gain users, Google Talk will have to be a compelling service that has a comparable amount and type of "bells and whistles" the other IM services have, such as emoticons, as well as complementary applications, Weiner says.
One thing Google has on its side is its decision to build Google Talk on the open XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) framework, which might make Google Talk more attractive to developers than other networks built on proprietary protocols, Weiner says.
Google Talk is in test, or beta, mode and requires that its users have an account in Google's free webmail service Gmail, according to Google, because Google Talk and Gmail are tightly integrated.
For example, Google Talk users' log in information will be the same they use for Gmail. Also, users will be able to access their Gmail inbox from within the Google Talk interface and send emails from there. Google Talk also will alert users about new messages received in their Gmail account.
Another point of integration is that users' Gmail contacts will be loaded automatically into their Google Talk interface, making it possible to exchange instant messages with those who have downloaded the IM software.
Google Talk users will also be able to invite those in their list of contacts to download the IM application and even contacts who aren't Gmail users will receive an invitation to sign up for the webmail so they can get Google Talk.
Gmail, launched in April 2004, is still in beta mode and new users have to be invited by an existing user to sign up for the service. Gmail users typically have 50 invitations available.
To talk to contacts on Google Talk, users should click on a "call" button in an open chat window or by clicking on the phone icon next to names on the contact list. A user can have multiple voice sessions open but only one can be active at any given time. To use this feature, users need a PC with a speaker and a microphone or headset.
Regarding the current lack of interoperability among the three largest consumer IM networks — Yahoo's Messenger, AOL's AIM and Microsoft's MSN Messenger — Google says it is committed to work with IM service providers to establish links between its service and others.
The Google Talk software runs on PCs with Windows XP or Windows 2000. Google has a list of Macintosh and Linux clients that work with the service.
In addition to Gmail and Google Talk, Google has other non-search online services such as the Picasa application to share and organise digital photos, and the Orkut social networking service, whose access remains restricted via invitation only, like Gmail.
Google also has a weblogging, or blogging, service, called Blogger, which is one of the most popular of its kind. Google also has given users the option of populating its notoriously sparse home page with syndicated feeds, weather information, stock quotes, news and other information.