Failure to Communicate

The controversy between America Online and Microsoft Corp. that erupted when Microsoft introduced its Messenger instant messaging service might seem unimportant to the corporate or enterprise user. After all, instant messaging isn’t exactly a core application at most corporate sites. Still, the underlying tension between the two Internet giants -- one offering high-function, proprietary services and the other advocating open, standards-based software -- may be a taste of conflicts to come.

Instant messaging is the ability to engage in direct conversation over the Internet. Unlike e-mail, instant messaging feels more like a live discussion than an exchange of postcards. While many corporations look down their noses at instant messaging, some leading-edge organizations are finding uses for the technology in customer support, collaboration among distributed team members and as an alternative to face-to-face meetings.

The advantage of Internet instant messaging schemes is that you can immediately see if another person is available online and initiate a conference or discussion without having to use a central directory service or schedule a discussion in advance. Older tools required you to register with a central directory and then use the directory to locate the people with whom you wanted to chat. The newer generation of tools allows you to build a client-side list of contacts and then be automatically notified when one of those people comes online.

All of the instant messaging and presence notification tools are free. The business model supporting them relies on advertising revenues to bankroll each service. AOL and ICQ Inc. dominate the instant messaging services -- both in number of subscribers and in quality of service. The popularity of the services is easy to illustrate: The combined subscriber base of AOL and ICQ is estimated to be greater than 80 million users; the number of instant messages sent each day is greater than the number of letters handled daily by the U.S. Postal Service. Not satisfied with merely dominating the marketplace, AOL continued to promote its service by publishing the protocols they have been using to create instant message enabled software.

Like many new tools on the Internet, instant messaging services are incompatible with each other. People using AOL’s instant messaging software can’t talk to people using another service’s tools. The reason? No standards have emerged for instant Internet messaging.

It’s not for a lack of trying, however. The key standards body for the Internet, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), has a working group devoted to instant messaging and related protocols. Its goal is to produce a vendor-neutral set of standards so any company building instant messaging products can be confident that the software will work with the products of other vendors. The IETF’s working group includes more than 40 companies, such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Disney’s Infoseek. Notably absent is the industry’s behemoth -- America Online.

During the last month, Microsoft, Prodigy Internet and Yahoo! each have used AOL’s public specifications to build instant messaging services compatible with AOL’s service. In reaction to Microsoft’s Messenger service, AOL immediately changed its protocol -- disabling Microsoft’s connection to AOL users. In the case of Prodigy Internet, AOL demanded payment to keep the two systems interoperable. When Microsoft was able to quickly repair its connection to AOL Instant Messaging users, AOL responded by changing the protocol again. It’s as if AOL sent out an invitation to an exciting party but failed to tell anyone about the bouncer keeping the invited guests from getting in the door.

AOL is reluctant to join a movement that might result in users being tempted by other services. Anything that threatens to take users from AOL’s messaging service threatens AOL’s ability to market to advertisers and hampers AOL’s ability to nudge users toward other offerings.

Barry Schuler, president of AOL Interactive Services, made a statement about Microsoft: "If they introduce interoperability without a deal with us, it's a hack, and it doesn't really work." What Schuler means, of course, is "no pay, no play." Interoperability is the result of standards being developed in a neutral setting, not some deal cooked up between competing giants. The ironic punch line of Schuler’s remark is that in other circumstances, AOL pleads for open access to technology -- notably in the area of cable-based ISP services.

Instant messaging may be a niche service now, but in time it will become an important part of enterprise networks. What’s important today is how the two dominant Internet players draw the battle lines between proprietary services and Internet standards. Similar to the time when Microsoft and Netscape Communications Corp. battled over key Web standards, this new conflict has significance far beyond instant messaging. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at