You think instant messaging is popular now? Just wait: the technology may appear in everything from mobile phones and word processors to washing machines.

"We are looking at integrating instant messaging in every application we can," says Francis deSouza, product manager for Microsoft’s instant messaging products. He says Microsoft will put IM into Windows Office applications Word, Outlook, and others.

Moving instant messages beyond the teenage throngs is a prime topic at this week’s Instant Messaging 2000 conference in the US.

Most attendees, representing a mix of Internet and telephone technologists, say they plan to combine existing applications and services with some aspect of IM technology.

But conspicuously absent from the proceedings was IM leader America Online. Its nonattendance is typical of AOL’s unwillingness to rally around one elusive standard that would permit interoperability among IM technologies, say industry observers.

In its defence, AOL says it will help any company integrate AIM technology into products and services if consumer privacy and security are protected.

IM's future goes far beyond the consumer desktop, attendees at the conference say. Soon you will be able to use IM for timely requests from your ink-jet printer to "please get more ink."

"Instant messaging will be one of the key technologies shaping how we communicate in the future," says Brian Park, a senior producer for Yahoo's communication products.

Buddy lists will appear on virtual phones, wireless pagers, and digital music players, Park says. "Instant messaging will be the glue connecting your PC, PDA, phone, pager, TV, and car," he adds.

Already, IM has made inroads into call centers and customer support operations, Pulver says.

But pushing IM another step requires industry cooperation, participants note. The primary stumbling block: no IM standard exists.

AOL dominates the field with 115 million AIM and ICQ users. While it supports an open standard in theory, AOL has blocked attempts by Microsoft, Yahoo and others who tapped into AIM and ICQ networks to create compatible messaging programs.

AOL's dominance is "the Berlin Wall" that's stalling progress in the IM industry, Pulver says. But the chat version of "perestroika" has begun, he adds. As more companies band together, AOL can't afford to go its IM road alone.