Mobile IM comes to Asia

12 Feb 2007

Mobile instant messaging is about to hit the big time. IM, which has gained its popularity from the Internet as a free application, is now penetrating quickly into the mobile space, thanks to the growing demand from both enterprises and mobile users.

Frost & Sullivan estimates that mobile IM will grow 56% annually over the next five years, with the worldwide mobile IM subscriber base soaring from 9.8 million this year to more than 66 million by 2011, as consumers extend their PC experiences to the mobile world and businesses become more confident in the security and management aspects of IM.

Asia is also expected to see rapid mobile IM growth in the next few years, as mobile operators and service providers race to tap the emerging business opportunities.

One major push on consumer IM was the initiative launched by the GSM Association last year, which aimed to promote the use of interoperable IM services across mobile networks in Asia and Europe. According to the GSMA, around 12 GSM mobile operators in Asia will roll out standardized and interoperable IM services this year under the banner 'Personal IM.'

In India, for instance, AirTel, Hutchison and Idea Cellular will launch interoperable mobile IM services as early as the second quarter, while the remaining six GSM operators (BPL Mobile, Aircel, MTNL, BSNL, Reliance Mobile and Spice Telecom) will launch the services later this year, according to Tom Williams, business director of fastmobile, which has been selected by the Cellular Association of India (COAI) to implement the project. Williams says the company will provide the operators with its StandardPLUS fmx1.5 SMS client while Jattayu, its technology partner, will host the IMPS server for the Indian operators.

Meanwhile, all three of Malaysia's GSM operators - Celcom, Digi Telecommunications and Maxis - will also launch interoperable IM services this year. Haslina Dawam, Celcom's senior manager for messaging and support, says the company plans to rollout the service by the third quarter and expects to see the service begin to take off in the first quarter of next year.

Singapore mobile operators M1, SingTel Mobile and StarHub are also developing a similar agreement, but the operators have yet to disclose when they would commercially launch the services.

Embrace Internet IM

Most wireless industry players and market analysts agree that mobile IM interoperability across different networks will be crucial to its success, as users will be reluctant to accept IM that only allows users to create buddy lists with friends who subscribe to the same mobile network.

Sandy Shen, principal research analyst with Gartner, says although the GSMA initiative will help drive the adoption of mobile IM to a certain degree, it will take time for all operators to achieve interoperability. To make mobile IM become a mainstream service and be adopted quickly, she says cellcos must open up their networks to Internet IM service providers like Yahoo and MSN, to tap the estimated 800 established Internet IM base.

'IM is about communicating with people. The more people you have on your network, the more people would like to use it,' Shen says. 'If they [mobile operators] can tap into that source, this would be a tremendous push for mobile IM, because currently not too many people have mobile IM accounts.'

Obviously, the GSMA initiative doesn't include interconnect with Internet IM services providers.

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