Pinger builds a bridge between IM and SMS

Pinger, a San Jose, Calif.-based startup that initially dealt in web-based voice messaging, has launched a free service for sending texts over a web browser. The new feature, dubbed Textfree Web, looks to bridge the gap between traditional SMS and the quickly growing mobile messaging market.

Pinger’s new product allows users to select a local U.S. phone number and use it to send and receive texts to other mobile numbers online. Textfree Web allows users to send messages to mobile numbers from the U.S., as well as 18 other countries, for free. Users can also receive unlimited photo messages via Textfree Web. Textfree Web can be used on any computer or device with Flash (s adbe) support.

Pinger’s product launch, which blends mobile instant messaging (IM) and SMS texting, looks to be very well-timed to larger industry trends. According to a new report released today by Juniper Research, mobile IM is on a startlingly upward trajectory, and mobile IM users are expected to exceed 1.3 billion within five years. That represents a tripling of the mobile IM user base from last year, the report said.

The mobile IM boom is expected to be driven by the arrival of new services such as Apple’s iMessage and the growth of existing ones.  But Juniper says mobile IM will by no means supplant the SMS market. “With SMS I know I can reach almost any handset in the world, if I have its number,” Juniper Research’s Daniel Ashdown says in a press release regarding the mobile messaging report. “While IM services have some advantages, such as real-time communication and apparent absence of cost, the market is fragmented by different services which cannot communicate with each other.”

No matter what metrics you look at, it’s clear people are communicating more than ever before online and via their mobile devices. Bringing the disparate communication methods closer together is a tall order — but Pinger seems to be up for the task.