Let the Instant Messaging Battles Begin
Web Informant #161, 26 July 1999
It is nice to see the monopolist shoe on the other foot.
Last week, Microsoft was on the receiving end of some nasty
business with arch-rival America Online. Here's the deal.
Microsoft released Messenger version 1.0, which is designed
to be able to communicate with AOL's Instant Messaging
users. But just a few days after the release, AOL blocked
Microsoft users from sending messages to AOL IM users.
Microsoft programmers, in turn, developed a workaround and
immediately issued an update to its Messenger client. The
last time I checked this weekend, Microsoft Messenger
clients could still talk to AOL clients.
Petty? Sure. But also inevitable. Instant Messaging is one
of AOL's killer applications. Just about every teenager in
America uses it these days, not to mention other heavy AOL
users. For those of you who aren't aware of IM, it is a
messaging applet that can tell you whether your "buddies" --
other AOL users whom you specify -- are currently online in
the AOL universe. When a buddy logs in, you are notified (by
the sound of a creaky opening door), and you can then click
on their screen name and type in a text message that is
immediately sent to the user.
IM is an incredibly useful application, even for people like
me (whose teenage years are long gone). Because I have a
continuous connection to the Internet at home and work, I
can IM family members without disrupting phone calls or
meetings. Even non-AOL users can get into the IM act:
Netscape for years has included an AOL IM client with its
browser. But for IM to work, you need an AOL screen name or
entry into AOL's user database. And that is crux of the
When it comes to instant messaging, AOL's IM is the industry
standard. AOL owns the application, its database of screen
names and passwords, and the programming interfaces to IM.
All well and good, you say. They should protect their
However, this isn't 1989, or even 1995. This is the era of
Open Systems. And AOL is doing everyone a disservice,
including its members, by blocking out Microsoft. Funny, I
seem to remember some testimony at the DOJ trial from AOL
complaining about similar action when Microsoft blocked AOL
from Windows desktops. Have Case & Co. such short memories?
Or when the programming shoe is on the other foot it is okay
to complain? I had thought that when AOL bought Netscape the
open systems rubric of the latter would find its way to the
Virginia headquarters of AOL. Apparently, this hasn't happened.
Why is AOL fighting so hard? Is it corporate ego? Is it
because they truly believe that their property is valuable
and don't want the Redmond Evil Empire to play in their
protected sandlot? Or are they miffed that Microsoft just
has better programmers and did a better job on their IM user
interface? You pick: whatever the reason, the end result is
that the public suffers.
(As a side note, their PR protests of how Microsoft requires
people to reveal their AOL passwords are disingenuous: you
need a password in order to access AOL IM anyway. While one
could make a case that the password that Microsoft captures
could be an issue for AOL users, I don't think it is much of
a security risk. Once again, this is the AOL pot calling the
Microsoft kettle black.)
AOL should license IM freely to all comers. It is in the
company's best interest to stop this blocking nonsense, to
encourage other companies to develop software to work with
AOL IM clients, and also to encourage others to adopt their
IM as the standard -- including the Internet working group
currently debating this topic.
Actually, Microsoft isn't the first to intrude on AOL's IM-
space Earlier this year Prodigy set up something similar to
Microsoft's Messenger but was blocked by AOL. Sadly, no one
cared about Prodigy access at the time. And also last week
Yahoo released a beta of its Messenger software (which used
to be called Yahoo Pager) that also had AOL access, but
backed down when AOL blocked Yahoo users too.
Maybe the DOJ should sue AOL for anti-trust actions. (I am
kidding, but there is an element of truth therein.)
While it has been fun to watch this battle royale between
Microsoft and AOL, we don't need more than one IM standard
at this point in time. Users certainly don't need to deal
with the challenges of whether or not their software will
work today because of corporate ego clashes either.
Microsoft and Yahoo could add value to AOL IM and widen the
IM world considerably. AOL should behave itself, publish its
IM specifications freely and stop blocking access to its IM
Copyright © 1999, 2000 media.org.
Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
Web Informant is ® registered trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress.