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Knocking on AIM's Door

by John Ochwat

At a June meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force, AOL, the industry heavyweight, submitted a proposal for open instant messaging (IM) standards.

AOL's proposal said in part, "We are reaffirming our consistent commitment to interoperability with the release of our proposed architectural design for a worldwide instant messaging system -- the kind of full interoperability that we all would like to see."

Vijay Saraswat, co-chairman of the IETF working group on Instant Messaging Presence Protocol, called it "a very good first step."

Although AOL cautioned that it had "resisted efforts by our competitors to impose a 'quick fix' system that would jeopardize our members' privacy and security," the company showed it was at least present at the game, if not actually playing ball.

In June, it looked like AOL was cooperating. It had taken "a very good first step."

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They why did the CEO of iCAST go before the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications on Oct. 6 to complain about AOL dragging its feet?

Starting from scratch

Only recently did people start paying attention to IM. Many thought it was a device used primarily by teenagers on AOL. But according to freeim.org, an industry lobbying group, IM is the fastest growing communications function on the Internet, with more than 130 million users worldwide, and more than 3 million signing up every month. "Over 1 billion instant messages are sent every day, far more than the entire mail volume of the U.S. Postal Service," the site says.

"Over 1 billion instant messages are sent every day, far more than the entire mail volume of the U.S. Postal Service."

Up until recently, IM has essentially meant AOL. AOL built the success of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) from scratch, first as a part of the online service, then on the Web for free download, and finally by licensing it to Lotus, Lycos, Earthlink, and other ISPs. The result is that non-AOL subscribers chat with AOL members and each other (but not to anyone outside the AOL realm).

In 1998 AOL acquired ICQ, an Israeli company that was almost as big as AIM, if not bigger. Recent figures have AIM at 65 million screen names and ICQ at 73 million downloads. AOL's closest competitor, Microsoft, had 18 million IM users as of July.

IM has always been free on the Web; as a result, it didn't seem important. But it's poised to soon go into two big markets -- wireless and to the enterprise. That, and the fact that AOL has over 90 percent of the market and isn't bending over backwards to make its service interoperable, has a lot of people concerned that the next big thing on the Internet will be closed, not open.

Instead, it will be controlled by AOL, a big company on the verge of becoming significantly bigger when it merges with Time Warner.

Knocking on the chat room door

The "facts clearly demonstrate AOL's desire to maintain its wall around the [instant messaging] market for as long as it can," said Margaret Heffernan, president and chief executive officer of iCAST, which offers a competing service.

"The facts also demonstrate that it is in the public interest that that wall be removed as soon as possible," Heffernan said in testimony prepared for a hearing in early October before the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications.

Heffernan and others crying foul is hardly new in the IM world. Over the past year iCAST and other companies, including Prodigy, AT&T, Tribal Voice, and Odigo, have all tried to let their messaging services work with AOL.

The companies were attempting to exploit a protocol that AOL made public, but AOL repeatedly blocked their efforts, saying that the moves undermine the security and privacy of its members. Microsoft even attempted to make its MSN Chat work with AOL, though it too later pulled back in favor of trying to win the battle by slinging mud instead of code.

Microsoft even attempted to make its MSN Chat work with AOL, though it too later pulled back in favor of trying to win the battle by slinging mud instead of code.

But that same group of companies, including Microsoft (as well as Excite@Home, Phone.com, and Yahoo) has formed IMUnified, a coalition of companies to develop interoperability between the various companies' messaging services.

(In case you're not fully attuned to the irony of this, AOL's position in the market is so dominant that Microsoft has been reduced to

  1. Joining a coalition with other companies
  2. Championing open standards

Has Microsoft completely forgotten about its fierce efforts to protect Windows? For that matter, has AOL completely ignored the fact that by keeping IM proprietary, it only succeeds in "protecting" its users from free and open communications with the rest of the people on the Internet?)

As IMUnified says on its web page, "You can pick up any telephone and call anybody in the world, no matter who your phone service provider is. And you can e-mail anyone, no matter which e-mail application you use. But you can't send or receive instant messages to anybody, anywhere, because instant messaging is not yet fully interoperable."

Since messaging services don't interoperate, IMUnified argues that this creates "islands" of users within the Internet, and that will stifle new messaging products.

Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth from Microsoft and the rest of the IMUnified gang, until AOL decided to open its doors, there seemed to be no permanent solution.

Next: Look Ma, interoperability!

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