Sean Egan, Google Inc.s latest high-profile hire, up until a few weeks ago was lead developer of software to simultaneously use multiple IM accounts.
But now hes got some much bigger fish to fry, namely helping Google chart the future of Google Talk, the search giants instant messaging feature that for now stands in the shadows of IM pioneers America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.s online unit, The Microsoft Network.
In a way, Egans new job isnt much of a change yet.
GAIM, the software he developed, is still a big focus of his first few weeks at work, he wrote during a recent e-mail interview.
For now, he says hes focusing on a protocol (a special set of rules that end points in a telecommunication connection use when they communicate) that makes it possible for GAIM and its competitors, such as Trillian or Psi, to more easily allow for Internet-based phone calls, which most instant messaging software makes possible.
But a much larger issue, namely interoperability, looms for Egan and the entire instant messaging industry.
Hundreds of millions of IM users can now only converse with others who have downloaded the same software.
So, for example, a Yahoo Messenger devotee can only connect with other Yahoo users.
The most oft-cited reason for the walled garden approach is the business environment of the proprietary IM technology on which Yahoo, MSN and America Online based their services.
“The situation with IM is frustrating,” Egan wrote in his e-mail.
“Programs like GAIM help by letting you connect to multiple services simultaneously, but they will still require you to have an account on each service you use, which is less than ideal.”
But dont expect Google Talk to swing open its doors to the top three.
Rather, Egans presence at Google could signal that while Google seems to be working toward the same goal as its main IM competitors, Google is going about it in a completely different way.
Thats despite a historic development of the last few weeks, when MSN and Yahoo, in a frontal assault on America Online, decided to hook up each others client bases for the first time in a decade.
This is likely to pressure AOL to make its own similar move, and put the spotlight on other competitors, such as Google, to do the same.
But Google is approaching the interoperability problem by partnering with others that have the same commitment to open protocols, which leads Google Talk further away from Yahoo, MSN and AOL.
“While its great that MSN and Yahoo are acknowledging that interoperability is an important issue, unless they open their networks to everyone, the problem hasnt really changed much,” he wrote in the e-mail.
Microsoft and Yahoo representatives didnt immediately return calls seeking comment.
In terms of raising Google Talks profile and user base, Egan has an uphill battle, it appears from the situation as it stands now.
Even though Google doesnt release Google Talk download figures, and neither did Egan, theres no doubt that the figure pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of downloads, and tens of millions of simultaneous users, of the three giant IM makers.
But hes working with a solid start, especially when it comes to telephony, according to Richi Jennings, an analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research.
Jennings said during an earlier interview that the combination of the popularity of Googles browser and Google Talks clean, easy-to-use interface will let the Internet telephony program become quite popular.