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Google Talk Far From Superior

Google has a habit of hitting out-of-the-park homeruns, but its new Google Talk instant messaging service is simply a base hit.

The service, introduced on Wednesday, allows Windows users to exchange text and voice messages. Unlike AOL, it doesn't work on a Mac and unlike Skype, you can only exchange voice messages with other PCs – not regular telephones. This is Google's second major announcement in three days. On Monday, the company announced an impressive new version of its desktop search program.

To use the free service you have to download a small (900k) program from

There's nothing wrong with the service. It's a fine instant messaging client and the sound quality is fine.

Click here to listen to Magid put the new Google Talk service to the test in a podcast interview with Google's Georges Harik.

The interview with Harik was conducted using Local Talk and his portion of the conversation was recorded onto a mini-disc before being transferred to a PC for editing.

Still, compared to offerings from other companies it is a so-so product that is unusual for Google.

Any instant messaging product begs to be compared with AIM – AOL Instant Messenger. AOL, which has nearly 42 million users, is clearly the 800-pound gorilla of instant messaging. Unfortunately, AOL is stingy about opening its instant messaging network to software from other companies, with the notable exception of Apple's iChat. That's a factor because people will use the IM program that their friends use.

If Google Talk can't communicate with AIM, then people whose friends or business associates use AIM won't find Google Talk that useful. To be fair, that's AOL's fault not Google's. Harik says that his company is committed to open standards and is in talks with operators of other instant messaging services to encourage "interoperability."

But AOL doesn't just have the numbers, it also has a mature full- featured service that's hard to top. Unlike Google's offering, AIM allows for group chatting, video chats, calls to regular phones (using a plug-in and a paid service) and the ability to exchange instant messages with users on mobile phones via an AIM for cell phones. Yahoo and MSN also have full-featured services.

Search Engine Watch has a comparison chart of features of all the major instant messaging programs and Google Talk pales by comparison. Of course, Google Talk is new and it's quite possible that future versions could over take its rivals, but based on what is currently being offered, the other programs have more to offer.

On the voice call front, the industry leader is Skype. Google's calls sound just as good as Skype, but Skype, which is free for PC-to-PC calls, has far more features including voice mail. It also has the option, for a very reasonable fee, to call or receive calls to regular phones nearly anywhere in the world.

For better and worse, Google Talk is integrated with Google's Gmail e-mail service. To use it you must have a Gmail account, but the trouble is, Gmail is an invitation-only service so lots of people haven't been able to get it. Google is changing that. Google Talk users can use their software to invite others to join Gmail and Google just set up a way that anyone with a cell phone can get an account.

If you visit this page, you can enter information for Google to send you a code to a cell phone enabling you to set up an account. Google says that it's using this method as a way to discourage spammers from opening up thousands of accounts, but it is an extra hassle.

If you don't have a cell phone, you can arrange to have the code sent to someone else's phone. The good thing about the Gmail integration is that it makes it easy to find people to chat with from your Gmail contact list.

Also, you can use Google Talk to initiate an email to someone if they're offline, but it does this by launching a web browser so you can use Gmail's web-based service.

Over time, Google Talk may evolve into an impressive service, but for now, it lacks one important element – there's no "Google Factor." In other words, it's good, but not great.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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