Further expanding beyond its roots in Internet search, Google is set to launch a long-rumored program today that provides both text instant...

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Further expanding beyond its roots in Internet search, Google is set to launch a long-rumored program today that provides both text instant messaging and computer-to-computer voice chat.

The program, Google Talk, will compete against free services offered by America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo!

As a newcomer to messaging, Google could face an uphill battle. AOL’s messaging program has about 41.6 million U.S. users, followed by Yahoo! Messenger with 19.1 million and MSN Messenger with 14.1 million, according to ComScore Media Metrix’s July report.

When asked about Google’s offering yesterday, an MSN spokesman highlighted Microsoft’s years of experience in the instant-messaging, or IM, space.

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“IM is something that Google absolutely has to do if they are going to be a real ‘portal’ type of site on the Web with services that create sticky relationships with their customers,” said spokesman Adam Sohn. “At MSN, we have been focused on building these types of services for 10 years and continue to invest and innovate in IM.”

Google’s software is based on open standards, so it will work with smaller networks based on the same technology. Text messages can be exchanged with users of Apple Computer’s iChat, Cerulean Studios’ Trillian and the open-source Gaim program.

Google is inviting programmers to build its technology into their software.

“It means other people and developers will be able to add value to our network by being able to add this to computer games, productivity applications and anywhere else they want,” said Georges Harik, director of product management at Google.

The new Google program features a basic user interface with few graphics, much like the main Google search site. It does not spawn pop-up windows or display ads like AOL’s Instant Messenger.

“We’ll have an uncluttered interface that allows you to search over your contacts pretty easily,” Harik said. “It just stays out of your way unless you want to connect to someone.”

Google Talk, which is being released in a beta test version, works only on PCs running Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Eventually, the company plans to release a version for Apple’s Mac OS X.

Google Talk also requires users to have an account with the company’s free Gmail e-mail system. Gmail previously was available only to those invited by a current account holder, but now Google is opening up registration to anyone in the United States.

Voice chat requires both caller and recipient to have speakers and a microphone hooked up to their computers. It does not currently offer an adapter to link to regular phones.

And unlike Internet phone services such as Vonage and Skype, Google’s voice service does not support calls to the regular telephone system.

Harik made clear Google does not intend to try to become a popular bridge to the other major instant-messaging providers.

“We’re not going to do anything like force other networks to interoperate with us,” he said. “We’re not going to arbitrarily break into their protocols.”

However, because Google Talk runs on open standards, outside developers who incorporate the service into their programs could try to enable such interoperability.

Because of Google’s large and loyal user base, the company’s foray into instant messaging could threaten the other players, said Sara Radicati, head of the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based technology-research firm.

As evidence, Radicati cited Google’s entry into e-mail, when it became chic to have a Gmail account.

“We’ve seen people show off their Google address,” she said. “It’s on the level of ‘Hey, look at my new Swatch. I’ve got the yellow one while you’re still wearing the blue.’ … It’s a little thing, but it helps.”

Adam Sohn’s comments were reported by Seattle Times technology reporter Kim Peterson