Google's new Google Talk isn't the best VoIP phone service; Skype is. It isn't the best IM service; that title goes to AOL Instant Messenger. Google Talkis likely to disappoint both high-volume VoIP and IM aficionados.
But casual users will find it a convenient blend of both mediums nicely integrated with Gmail, whose responsiveness and innovative message archiving make it an acceptable office e-mail system. Unlike AOL, MSN and Yahoo! web mail, Gmail is useful for something more than personal or backup messaging. What Google brings to the party is the successful integration of several hot-hot-hot communications technologies under one intuitive and sprightly interface.
Still, there's no way the first version of anything can be best of breed from a feature standpoint. Unlike the AOL, MSN and Yahoo!IM programs, Google Talk can't send photos and videos or videoconference. It can't connect to landlines or encrypt messages like AOL Callways and Skype. And each Google Talk competitor has added its own little gems over time, such as customized backgrounds, calendaring and online gaming.
So if you can temporarily live without skins and emoticons, the only challenge in Google Talk is getting buddies to join you. The major services have been largely successful at walling in their users. On the other hand, Skype signed up 54 million users in two years, and Google Talk sets up easily enough.
You have to sign up for Gmail first, though, and that requires a cell phone number. Supposedly, that's a way to verify your identity if you forget your password. But by the way, do you mind if Google keeps your number around so you can get alerts on "topics that interest you" and future, unspecified "Google Mobile services"? Translation: "Our text ads are perfect for a tiny phone display, and we've got big plans for those 1 billion-plus cell phone users."
That number will double by 2009, by which time no one will even remember that e-mail, IM, cell phones, VoIP and landlines were once separate. Google Talk isn't for everyone, but it's all most folks need for now.