SMS makes way for instant messaging

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NEW DELHI, 03 July 2007: India’s nascent instant messaging on phones market is about to get crowded in July. With phones getting smarter by the day, mobile operators have stumbled upon a huge cache of ready customers who can be tapped for a service which has until now been ruled by the internet and technology firms such as Yahoo Inc. and MSN (part of Microsoft Corp.)

Unlike mobile messengers from Yahoo and others, operators will introduce and instant messaging service next month which does not require users to know the other person’s IM (instant messaging) ID, only his or her phone number.

“We expect the operators to be able to launch the service next month, “says T.R. Dua, senior director with the cellular industry lobby Cellular Operator Association of India, and the person in charge of the project. Part of a global initiative by the GSM Association, a body of operators and equipment is being implemented by Bangalore-based Jataayu Software Ltd and US-based fastmobile Inc.

Dua said the instant messaging client, a downloadable programme that will run on most data or (GPRS phones allow higher bandwidth operations), has been undergoing testing for the last three months and that final tariff schemes are being worked out by the operators before launch.

Instant messaging allows text-based interaction between mobile users who have data-enabled phones. It costs less than SMS (short messaging services). It also allows users to enrich their messages by adding colours, icons, web-links, even pictures. But the service has not impacted the SMS revenues of Telcos thus far because it requires the other person’s alias (Yahoo! Or MSN ID in case that is the messenger being used). The new service, however, will do away with that requirement as the phone will also be his ID.

“It will not be as universal as SMS, “says Harith Hagpal, head of marketing for Hutchison Essar Ltd, one of the three operators gearing up for the launch, “because the phone has to support GPRS. Also, the person has to be logged on into the service to receive the messages.”

Nagpal says that much like the mobile IMs launched by Yahoo and MSN and unlike SMS, Hutch was not looking at charging users per message but charge them a monthly fee. “It will be a subscription-based service for a monthly fee of, say around Rs100, for an unlimited number of messages,” he adds.

COAI’s Dua says the tests had proven the service to be inter-operable and that users could IM phone-numbers on any of the three networks supporting the service. “We will also introduce the features such as interoperability with Yahoo! And MSN instant messengers if commercial agreements (with these firms) can be reached, “he adds. Yahoo and MSN, which dominate the small Indian IM Market, have an estimated 300 millions IM users worldwide. India had 130 millions mobile telephony users on the GSM platform at the end of May. COAI will also look at letting users interact with users on other GSM networks in the world, Dua says.

Bharti Airtel Ltd and Idea Cellular Ltd are also launched as SMS-compatible service last week in its Dehli circle in tie-up with the UK-based technology company Affle Pte Ltd. SMS2.0 offers text messaging, instant messaging, and interactive messaging features, such as Internet search. However, unlike the multi-operator IM services, the service will still be charged per message, removing the primary attraction behind moving to IM from SMS.

However, the widespread use of IM services may impact the profitability of the operators; between 8% and 10% of the revenues of telcos that offer services on the GSM platform are currently generated by SMS. A message costs Rel within the state and Rs2 to other parts of the country. Dua says he expects the increase in the number of users, as more and more people sign up for the services, to compensate for this: “The service will rope in people who were hesitant about using any messaging service including SMS to try out the new platform.

Yahoo, which has a global agreement with Nokia to install IM applications at the operating system level itself on its phones and has its mobile messengers installed on millions of Nokia phones in the country, says its Indian arm has not been approached so far for any talks on interoperability. “We believe that consumers are not going to be in favour of multiple clients and services on their phones and networks have only one way to go, and that is to make their services interoperable so that subcribers of any network can message any other, “says a Yahoo India spokesperson. The spokesperson refused to comment on the number of IM ussers Yahoo has in India.