SAN FRANCISCO – Yahoo Inc. (YHOO), the world's second-largest supplier of instant-messaging, has begun offering a new version that works inside a Web browser rather than requiring users to download a separate piece of software.
By dispensing with the need to install and run a separate IM program, Yahoo is looking to reach out to tens of millions of consumers around the world who use the Web in Internet cafes instead of on personal computers at work or at home.
The move also appeals to travelers, business professionals on the go and office workers whose companies block IM software downloads on their internal networks for security reasons.
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"Too many people have been restricted from benefiting from this type of communication," Brad Garlinghouse, Yahoo's senior vice president in charge of communications, said in an interview.
The introduction of Web-based IM paves the way for Yahoo to eventually allow the rapid-fire text communication service in the member profile pages of social networking services such as MySpace, Facebook or other sites popular with young users.
"We certainly think about the opportunity where social networking and real-time IM communications intersect," Garlinghouse said, giving no timeline for when that may occur.
The Yahoo service — at http://messenger.yahoo.com — is initially available in Brazil, India, Malaysia, Philippines, the United States and Vietnam and will expand to additional countries within the year, Yahoo said.
In India, 46 percent of consumer Web users log on from Internet cafes. Yahoo is the biggest IM service in India, according to comScore data, and it dominates in the Philippines and Vietnam, where upward of 80 percent of IM users use Yahoo.
Web-based IM is nothing new. Meebo.com grew popular among early technology adopters with a Web-based service that allows users to simultaneously sign on to AIM, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google IM programs.
Rival Google Talk has been embedded inside Google's (GOOG) e-mail program, Gmail, for more than a year.
But Yahoo brings the advantages of Web-based IM to a far larger market of tens of millions of active users.
"The Internet is evolving from a static experience where a Web page is just a Web page to where Web pages behave more like traditional desktop computer applications," Garlinghouse said.
One attraction of Yahoo's new Web-based IM service is an archive feature that allows a user to search back to find all previous conversations with any of their IM contacts.
Another feature likely to impress heavy users is the ability to manage 10 or more simultaneous conversations in just one IM window.
Yahoo is No. 2 worldwide in IM with 88.5 million users, according to audience measurement firm comScore Inc., AOL's AIM is No. 1 in the United States, and Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN/Windows Live Messenger is most popular globally.
Historically, a big disadvantage of IM was that both sender and receiver had to use the same service.
Since last July, Yahoo Messenger users have been able to talk to MSN IM users.
IDC analyst Rebecca Swensen said Yahoo, along with AIM, MSN, Google and eBay Inc.'s (EBAY) Skype, is blurring the distinctions that existed in the first decade of the Web between e-mail, instant-messaging and phone-calling.
"All these guys are laying the foundation for an online communications platform for users," she said, noting that Web services are fast becoming available not just on computers but also mobile phones, televisions and game consoles.