Google Talk

Google released a brand new instant messaging client last Wednesday. Rumors of Google offering instant messaging have circulated since as far back as 2002, or longer. The more services Google released, the more the site began resembling a web portal; this drew speculation of G offering instant messaging next. By now the idea is hardly remarkable to most of us, but Google usually surprises us.

Hearing that Google finally crossed into instant messaging (IM) caused some confusion and unease. Google’s own mission statement (which we’ve all heard a hundred times) says the company will “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” A brand new IM client seems like a step backwards from organizing information. So what is the reason for this?

Many people have commented in frustration that we don’t need any more instant messaging programs. With so many separate IM networks, users are fragmented between clients already. The only two solutions to talking to all friends on all networks are (1) download every client and run the programs simultaneously or (2) use a program like Trillian that circumvents running clients by signing into multiple networks (which also may break terms of service).

Gee thanks, Google. I really needed a way to contact my friends.

Google entering chat may mean users will end up fragmented across yet another network, necessitating people run another program to find all their friends. Between adding one more chat service in an internet that has plenty and not obviously having anything to do with their mission statement, some reviewers and users have been very hard on the new chat network. Some have also whined about the simplicity of it, but would you expect anything else from Google?

I have to say that I agreed with a lot of the criticism to start with. But after really checking out Google Talk and exploring it, most of the criticism seems worthless. Before reviewing or getting into the details of the program, I’ll address some of the biggest concerns. Read on, and see why Google Talk is not the junk that some have said it is.

{mospagebreak title=Google Talk and Open Communications}

The biggest gripes people have about GTalk are those I mentioned already: adding another chat network and not clearly fulfilling Google’s mission. Honestly, some people just look for things to complain about. Yes, there is a whole variety of chat programs already. Among them are:

All of them use different networks, making it necessary to download each program to talk to people on that network. It would be annoying for Google to introduce another network, if they hadn’t made plans to combat the situation. Google has released a little information about what Google Talk is meant to accomplish, which should quell some of these comments. Most of the critics have obviously missed this.

Google envisions these independent chat networks being able to communicate with each other. Instant messaging should be more like email and telephone service.  For instance, choosing an email provider or phone company does not block you from contacting people using other providers and companies. A person who signs up with Verizon can call friends on TMobile, Bell South, Cingular, or other phone networks. Email providers also do not prevent users from sending email to friends who use other email providers.

Why don’t IM networks have this kind of interoperability? Why can’t an AIM user send a message to a Yahoo! Messenger user? The solution: an IM federation.

We plan to partner with other willing service providers to enable federation of our services. This means that a user on one service can communicate with users on another service without needing to sign up for, or sign in with, each service… As a first step towards fulfilling our commitment to federation, we will federate with EarthLink and Sipphone, service providers who share our belief in enabling user choice and open communications. (Google Talk and Open Communications)

Some programs like Trillian and GAIM already allow you to sign into separate networks simultaneously. To put it nicely though, those programs are a hack job compared to what Google envisions. Programs such as Trillian steal access to chat networks and protocols, sort of breaking into the service (and often breaking terms of use for that chat network). Those programs still require users to have a login ID for each service. Instead of forcing their program to access other services, Google plans to come to an agreement with federation members on how to make networks interconnect. This will also prevent needing to have a login ID on ever chat network you want to use.

Forming a federation is necessary to making IM a coherent service between providers. If Google is successful, your choice of IM provider will be based more on the services of that provider than what service your friends use. Getting chat giants like AIM and Yahoo! to open up their networks to be accessed from outside will be a challenge, but making a chat client is the first step. Without an IM client and a user base, what leverage does Google really have?

{mospagebreak title=How Google Talk is Different}

There are a few things that make GTalk stand out from other instant messaging services besides their attempt to form a federation. As you may expect, Google has not tried to make Google Talk quite a complex as certain unmentioned IM services.

Google Talk is really a modification of an existing chat client. The Jabber software has been available already, but it has never had any big takers. Google Talk gives Jabber just the publicity boost it needed to gain a real user base. In addition to the Jabber software, Google inserted audio software that was licensed by Global IP Sound Inc. Despite seeming like two existing programs glued together, GTalk is still worth looking at on its own.

The program is relatively tiny since it lacks a lot of advanced and useless features. All installed and set up, the program occupies 2.21 MB of your hard drive. To put this in perspective, AIM uses 20 MB and others (like Windows Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger) are right around that mark too. A smaller program means a smaller memory footprint and less clutter. Speaking of which, there are no ads.

There are a number of other things you will not find in GTalk: file transfers, mobile IM, buddy icons, emoticons, profiles, warning systems, stock tickers, news, games, ads, etc. How many of these things are really important to IMs anyway? What it does, it does well. That includes basic messaging, voice chatting, and integrative with your Gmail account.

Doesn’t anyone want to be my GTalk friend?

That is what the buddy list looks like. The “Search all contacts” field actually searches your Gmail buddy list, not just the GTalk one. Adding a friend to your buddy list adds them to your Gmail address book if they weren’t there already. During a chat, you can also click an “email” button to use Gmail to mail your buddy, if you have something too large to send in the chat or want to transfer a file. This makes Gmail work as a file transfer system instead of the IM client. While Google Talk is open, it also displays mail notifications when you receive Gmail.

Another nice detail of GTalk is that the alert sounds are much less annoying than other messengers. In fact, I’d label them “not annoying at all” given that they continue not to bother me after a few months of use.

When you receive an instant message and Google Talk is not the program you have in focus, it shows instant message notifications (including the message) over by the system tray. This is great to prevent you from going back to the chat window to see your buddy said “brb,” and it can be turned off if it bothers you.

The chat windows are also a little less cluttered. AIM users are used to seeing their name pop up every time they type something; in GTalk, the name only shows once until the other chatter responds.

Mike: hey, dude
Mike: what’s going on there? are you around?
Mike: oh, I guess not
Dude: sorry, I was sleeping
Google Talk
Mike: hey, dude
  what’s going on there? are you around?
  oh, I guess not
Dude: sorry, I was sleeping

To add to the list of complaints, some whine that there is no text formatting. It uses black text on a white background, and emoticons are a few symbols that turn blue and bold. The ones I found that it responds to are:

🙂    🙂    🙁    🙁    😉

Personally, I don’t mind this simplicity at all. A million font styles and emoticon images may look fun to some, but it gets old and annoying. Besides, Google announced that they would implement font formatting eventually; this version of Google Talk is just a beta.

Despite being a beta, the audio software works very well.

{mospagebreak title=Looking at GTalk Voice Chat}

The big feature that GTalk claims is its voice feature. Given that you have a microphone and speakers, it’s actually rather nice. Users can only chat if both are using Google’s Talk client (available for only Windows XP at the moment). Once a user initiates a voice chat, the program makes a telephone ringing noise and will look something like this.

Placing a call to another user.

You’ll notice that Google tried to make the buttons look like a VOIP service (like Skype) that can call people on home phones from the internet. The buttons refer to using the voice features as a “call.” However, this is not VOIP and can only chat with other Google Talk users. Google wants it to be clear they are not providing VOIP in their license agreement:

3. Not a Telephony Service; Emergency Calls Not Available. You understand and agree that Google Talk is not a telephony service and that neither the Service nor the Client is capable of placing or receiving any calls (including emergency services calls) over publicly switched telephone networks.

This doesn’t mean that integrating VOIP later is out of the question. After Yahoo! recently bought a VOIP provider, adding this functionality to Google Talk seems like the direction technology is inevitably going.

When somebody calls you, Google Talk makes a different ringing noise and displays this:

Accepting a call.

That image speaks for itself, but you still haven’t seen the program on a call.

{mospagebreak title=Sound Quality and Features}

Google did a good job making the voice features. Below is a screenshot of the chat window during a “call.”

You can see my friend was impressed with the sound quality too.

Obviously the “End Call” button cuts the conversation off. The “Mute” button makes your microphone mute, not the speakers. The microphone and speaker icons indicate the volume level of each. The best little icon is the set of bars on the right. If you have a cell phone, they should look familiar. Those bars indicate signal strength. The more speed, the more bars are blue. If you are downloading things, you will have fewer bars and poor signal. The audio may cut out. Using a dialup modem, the highest signal I got was 4 out of 5 bars. The audio didn’t get bad until it got down to 2 bars.

To put Google Talk in perspective, I tested the voice chat features of the other big IM programs. I used AIM and Yahoo! Messenger on a 56k dialup modem. Here’s quick rundown of how they did:

  • AIM: This was the worst audio quality by a long shot. AIM echoed. It chopped up and distorted the audio. My friend sounded like a brain-dead robot since the compression was rather poor. I had to ask him what he said many times, because it was very hard to understand anything.

  • Yahoo!: This messenger was slightly better. Yahoo! Messenger didn’t cut out or echo nearly as much, but these problems came up sometimes. This big issue is that the compression of the audio was too high. It made the sound very “canned.” I could understand what he was saying this time, but the voice did not sound like his at all.

  • Google Talk: The best by far. Google Talk sounded like a telephone. There was no echo at all, and my friend’s voice did not sound compressed in the least. If I was downloading something in the background (even just opening a webpage) the strength of the signal would drop, and it sometimes started to cut out. It still cut less than AIM and about as often as Yahoo! Messenger; this will be much less trouble when not using a dialup connection. Also, the signal indicator did help me keep an eye on when it was going to get bad.

While many may not use voice chat features, this could be due to the existing ones completely sucking. To make voice chat useful we needed one that sounds just as good as a telephone. If more of my friends migrate to Google Talk, we may find ourselves saving long distance charges and talking instead of typing.

So what are the legitimate complaints about GTalk that remain? Well, there are few users so far; I found getting people to sign up to try it with me was more work than I had expected. Also there is no logging tool, and not even the Google Desktop 2 keeps a chat log. While some Google products get more good press than they may deserve, this was something of the opposite case.

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