Google has integrated AIM into its chat in Gmail, delivering what Google and AOL announced nearly two years ago when they renewed their search deal and Google invested $1 billion in AOL.
The integration is not true interoperability, like what exists between Yahoo! and MSN’s IM products. Google/AIM works like a multi-headed client, such as Trillian or Pidgin. In order to chat with someone on AIM, you must have an AIM account. You provide your AIM account information and Google logs you into AIM and displays your AIM Buddy List integrated with your Google buddies. (AIM buddies have the AOL running man icon next to them.)
The integration worked reasonably well. I could see and chat with my buddies. Just as with Google buddies, chats were automatically stored in my Gmail account. Unfortunately, the indexing is less than optimal. If a user’s screenname is “jsmith2000923″ but displays as “John Smith,” you can only search by “jsmith2000923.”
Another flaw is that AIM’s mobile indicators don’t show up reliably. You might think that someone is available, when they’re really just available on their mobile phones.
A bonus with the addition of AIM integration is that you can use AIM to send SMS messages from within Gmail. Just add the phone number as an AIM buddy.
The AIM integration isn’t yet incorporated into Google’s downloadable client, Google Talk. Without carpet bombing the United States 100x over with CDs, it seems Google Talk hasn’t gotten a lot of traction. Given that Google was very late to the IM party, I suspect that many of the people likely to download Google Talk use Trillian or Pidgin instead.
That’s OK, because integrating chat into Gmail was a genius move. It drew many Gmail users into Google’s chat and I know a few people who went from just Google Talk users to Gmail users. In the two years since the announcement, I’ve seen many of my non-AOL friends become Google chat users.
I already run Pidgin at startup on my computers, so this integration isn’t critical for me. But it will be useful when using someone else’s computer. Now I can just log into Gmail and have access to my Google and AIM buddies. This poses a threat to Web-based IM providers such as Meebo. (Meebo does a whole lot more, but this might be “good enough” for many people.)
That still leaves out my Yahoo! and Microsoft buddies. Sadly, this is one of the few areas where the Web companies have trailed the wireless carriers. Wireless operators in the United States have had true interoperability for several years now. But they had a financial incentive to do it: they charge for each message sent and received.
Disclosure: I worked at AOL Search.