UserLand have released support for instant messaging (IM) in Frontier and Radio. I think this is not only a neat feature but also a smart move. In the first instance IM is being used to notify subscribers when a Radio instant outline has been updated. This releases Radio from the previous method of polling a central server to find out when an outline updates. Targeted notification from the originator rather than constant polling by the subscriber is an obvious way of reducing unnecessary overhead and network access. The use of existing IM protocols AIM and Jabber was a sensible choice.

IM has been around on the Internet for a long time, most notably as IRC (since at least 1988 according to Google). As with other long-standing Internet protocols and applications, the growth in popularity has been steady but slow. However, once the user base reaches a certain critical size, once the software vendors make the software accessible, user-friendly and fun or once an application catches the imagination (witness the uptake of smileys and other so-called emoticons into not only IM clients buts also other forms of communication) then there’s an inflection of the growth curve and the popularity explodes. Available figures from the communications industry suggest that messaging will be the biggest growth area for all wireless data applications over the next 2-3 years. Bigco announcements such as Apple’s announcement to support the AIM protocol in its new iChat application that ships with its latest version of OS X confirms that IM is going to be big business. Convergence of IM and SMS, that other instant communication phenomenon can’t be far away.

UserLand’s smart move was giving Frontier and Radio IM capability at a low enough level to allow users to build their own IM applications. The first implementation of IM in Frontier and Radio is modest and relatively low key. As soon as awareness of this new capability reaches the UserLand developer community we can expect to see some very powerful uses of IM emerge. Integration of Frontier and Radio with the Jabber protocol looks particularly interesting and at the last count there were 44 proposals to enhance the protocol, proof if proof were needed that there’s a very active IM developer community. As a Mac OS X user, I think the integration of IM with the desktop environment, the support for system level XML-RPC and the release of IM support in Frontier and Radio opens up some very interesting possibilities.