First reactions to Google Talk, the search engine giant's entry into voice and IM communications are on what's missing, not what's there.
Google Talk allows users of Google's e-mail service, Gmail, to communicate by text and voice, but on first acquaintance lacks the "wow factor" Google has brought to other areas. However, it does what it does quite well, and there are indications of where it might go in future.
Easy to use
Before we criticise, let's say what's good. For a beta on day one, this software installs easily and works first time. I've now spoken to several other users, and none report any problems. The software downloads and installs, and colleagues report first-time VoIP success, on everything from a six-year old, 600MHz Windows 2000 machine to a spanking new XP-running ThinkPad.
It also works on Linux, but without Google's client, and without voice support, so this is a Windows proposition for now.
Another positive about Google Talk is that - unlike some of its large IM rivals - it supports the XMPP, or Jabber protocol, allowing other clients to attach to it.
The other big positive is voice quality. Google is presenting as a major distinguishing feature, having a specially-developed sound processing system, and on the first day, it was paying off. I moved one conversation from Skype to Google and got far better quality. In another conversation I could clearly pick out the classical radio station in the background.
Sound quality is subjective, however, and anyone who has used Skype regularly knows that it is not a gating factor - million of people people use Skype despite the fact that its quality is worse than a regular phone.
Perhaps the most glaring omission - given that this comes from Google, whose mission is "to organise the world's information" - is the fact that the text IM messages are not logged, stored or indexed. So the only IM service that Google's desktop search can't index - is Google's own.
Not everyone searches their IM logs, but those of us that do will avoid using Google Talk for IM until that is put right.
The other big lack is links to other Jabber users. The Google Talk servers refuse connections from those outside its own users, so Google Talk users can only talk to each other.
Overall, the Google Talk client software can best be described as basic. The number of options is very small compared with open source clients such as Gaim, or with Yahoo! Skype or AIM (or even, I gather from its users, MSN Messenger).
It doesn't do video, it doesn't share images, it doesn't do voicemail. It doesn't offer encryption.
It only does voice if you use the Google Talk client, which only runs on Windows - so there is no mobile Google Talk at present (and it is possible that Google will not see much benefit to its core business in offering a mobile version).
Despite only working with Gmail users, it is not as well integrated with Gmail as it might be. It is possible to launch a Gmail message from the Google Talk window, but not vice versa. Google Talk does not add "presence" to Gmail in a real sense - there are no icons in the contacts directory, that would launch an IM or voice chat form Gmail.
Because it only talks to Gmail users, you both need Gmail accounts to have a conversation, so the first day of the beta saw many Gmail users inviting others to join (currently the only way to get a Gmail account outside the US).
Less powerful than Skype
As long as it's a bare-bones text-IM-plus-voice service that only links to a Gmail users, Google Talk is not going to be a worry to Skype (or the other IM clients).
By comparison, Skype has the SkypeOut and SkypeIn services, for communicating with the phone network. It has voicemail and file sharing, and a host of third party add-ons (look around in Skype Journal).
Skype also feels like a tool that wants to be used: when you launch it, it offers to search your Outlook contacts, and then it offers near matches from the directory of Skype users - it's almost a social networking tool. Google Talk does nothing like that.
Some observers see Google Talk as little more than a way to drive more people to use Gmail, where they will see more of the company's famous context-sensitive ads.
All this may change in future. Google is reported to be working on a link to softphones, including the SIP-based Gizmo Project. Skype's failure to adopt SIP has not apparently hurt it so far, but Gizmo might look a lot more like a Skype competitor with support from Google.
With a lack of features, Google Talk isn't worth getting excited over, yet. However, Google's resources could make something good out of it in future.