It's Good to Talk

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Communication via the internet could one day replace that by the phone.

For a long time instant messaging has allowed computer users to communicate over the internet using a text-based chat service. Both Yahoo! and Microsoft's messenger services are used by millions of people - one report from last year in Wired News said that over 250 million users sent over 7 billion messages every year.

Instant messaging is similar to phone texting, except that you can chat to one or more users in real time, wherever they are in the world. Initially popular because the system didn't require a fast internet connection, the various services have mushroomed in recent years.

Instant messaging is particular - popular at work. It's easy to chat to your friends without the boss knowing - after all, it's difficult to tell the difference between someone typing a report and someone discussing the latest cricket scores by listening to their typing.

As this online community has grown, gimmicks and extras have been added. Initially these were cosmetic - the ability to add a picture or cartoon of yourself to your public profile or change the background of the screen were two early options offered by Yahoo! More recently the ability to connect a microphone and speakers allowed people to talk properly over the internet. It's this last advance that has opened the way for the providers of these free services to seriously attract users to them, and make some money.

Anyone who uses Yahoo!'s service will have been irritated in the last month by the pop-up message received when you log in, offering the latest update.

This configures Yahoo! for proper conversations between computer users and the ability to leave voicemail for them when they are away. This free service is perilously close to the holy grail of computer to computer communications - the ability to make free telephone calls via your desktop computer.

The technology exists. The problem at the moment is that there is no free way to communicate with someone who doesn't have the equipment at the other end. You can't simply call your mum from your desktop computer if her computer hasn't been set up at the other end to receive the call. Some companies do offer computer to phone calling, but while it's cheaper than normal phone calls it's not free.

But this might not be that far away in some cases, and certainly systems that allow you to set things up using the appropriate equipment are growing like wild fire. In early September eBay, the online auction house, spent $4 billion on a company called Skype, which will provide the technology to allow buyers and sellers to call each other for free. Some industry analysts are saying that the deal was a mistake - the Guardian called it a loss maker and suggested it would have been cheaper for eBay to invent the technology from scratch. The existence of a simple way of making calls like this will be a major threat to the profits of more traditional phone companies, particularly as the technology will be far easier to integrate with mobile handsets. Already China's largest telecom provider has blocked Skype, not apparently as an act of censorship, but rather as a way of protecting its interests.

Skype was set up by the same programmers who made the Kazaa filesharing software, one of the most popular ways of illegally swapping music files until it was effectively shut down last month. But the spirit of Kazaa lives on in Skype's phone system. It is the work of a few minutes to visit their website and download the software and there is no central exchange. At the moment it's growing at the rate of 150,000 users a day.

There will be a lot of hurdles down the road before this method of communicating overtakes normal phone use. But with major companies like Microsoft, eBay, Yahoo! and Google in the hunt for the best way to implement the technology, you can bet that the essence of free international phone calls will soon be diluted as they realise that they can make cash from it.