By Eric Auchard
Google Inc. users will be able to conduct instant message chats from a Google Web browser window, alongside their e-mails, instead of requiring a separate application, the company said late Monday.
Google, known for its simple and powerful Web searching, hopes that by embedding new instant messaging software it calls "Gmail Chat" into its existing e-mail service, it can differentiate itself in a crowded market it was late to join.
The company is struggling to stand out in an entrenched field. Instant messaging was pioneered by America Online more than a decade ago. AOL, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. now have tens of millions of users each.
Google shares fell 4.2 percent to $369 on Nasdaq.
Google is fixing a decade-old technical divide between the generic Web browser that can check e-mail, search the Web or perform a host of other activities, and separate software used to converse in quick back-and-forth messages with buddies.
"We are breaking down some of the artificial barriers between e-mail and Web browsing," Salar Kamangar, Google's vice president of product management, said in a phone interview.
"We observed by talking with our users that there is no reason to think of IM as different from an e-mail message."
Gmail Chat complements Google Talk, a more sophisticated program the company introduced six months ago that combines instant messaging (IM) with free Web-based calling features. By joining IM to e-mail, Chat can reach a wider base of users.
"This is training wheels for Google Talk," said Greg Sterling, an analyst with Kelsey Group. "It is a way to introduce a broader population to instant messaging and give them exposure to Google Talk."
Gmail Chat requires no special software download. It is available to any registered user of Gmail e-mail. Existing contacts within the more advanced Google Talk program automatically show up in Google Chat, the company said.
Gmail Chat features include a Quick Contacts list on the left side of a Google e-mail page that automatically displays the people the user communicates with most frequently, not just via Chat but also via Gmail e-mail or Google Talk services.
Gmail users will start receiving offers to join the Gmail Chat service over the coming weeks, although some members received invitations as early as Tuesday.
In effect, Mountain View, California-based Google is easing the frustrations of millions of instant messaging users of having to install special software on each computer to hold instant chats.
While this presents little difficulty for computers users sitting at a PC they control, many office workers are restricted from downloading the special IM software required for their work machines. Casual Web users checking their e-mail on friends computers or Internet cafes hit similar roadblocks.
But the innovation is one of degree.
Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo all allow users to send instant messages from within a Web browser, although none of them puts special emphasis on the feature.
Last September, Meebo, a Silicon Valley-based start-up began publicly testing a simple-to-use service that allows someone to sign into the four major instant messaging programs at once -- AOL, Yahoo, MSN and Google -- from a single Web page, without any sign-up process or downloading any special software.
The trial software is available atCopyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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