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Instant Messaging Skirmish Escalates

An intense battle is brewing over instant messaging involving two Internet heavyweights.

Last Thursday Microsoft Corp. belatedly launched MSN Messenger, an instant messaging service that allowed any Internet user to get a free Hotmail account and a free America Online Instant Messaging account through MSN or AOL.

On the first day of its release, MSN sources reported that 200,000 users downloaded the software. Almost immediately, AOL electronically blocked Microsoft's instant messaging program. AOL criticized Microsoft's MSN Messenger, stating that it poses a security threat to AOL users.

MSN technicians quickly posted a revised version of messaging software that worked around the initial AOL barrier. AOL retaliated with another block to outside access on Friday. By Saturday afternoon, Microsoft's latest revision of the instant messaging software was getting around the AOL blockade again.

On Sunday, MSN technicians posted their most recent update concerning the tug-of-war for access to AOL servers at their MSN website. The notice informed MSN users that AOL has one again made changes to their AIM service that impacted MSN's ability to communicate with AOL server contacts.

The notice informed MSN messenger users that the company remains firmly behind open standard access for all instant notification services and that another fix would be available soon.

"We are committed to providing you the interoperability you have asked for, and are updating MSN Messenger Service to address these issues," the technical update reads. "We will post information about the new version when it is available."

Many in the computer industry have asked AOL to make its instant messaging technology an open standard which would allow other companies to write software that would interface with the AOL network.

AOL spokesman Tricia Primrose said their goal in attaining a workable solution for interoperable instant messaging is no different than MSN.

"From where we sit, we think Internet messaging will be completely open and interconnected. The question is how the industry will overcome the technical hurdles of coordinating access without risking consumer security and privacy issues."

Primrose added AOL has contacted MSN to work out a long-term solution for instant messaging access in lieu of developing an industry standard for all service providers.

About two years ago, Microsoft and about 40 companies proposed that the Internet Engineering Task Force affirm an open standard for instant messaging software. AOL did not partake in the discussions and forged ahead to develop their proprietary version of AIM software.

In addition to blocking MSN instant message services, Yahoo Inc. found that their once open access to AIM users had also been blocked. Interestingly, MSN Messenger the does not allow communication with Yahoo Messenger.

Meanwhile, Prodigy which offers a similar service, has called for a meeting of Internet companies to create an open standard that would let anyone send instant messages to anybody else, regardless of what online service they use.

Prodigy developed its own instant messaging service based on technology released by AOL, but after two months of use AOL blocked Prodigy members from sending the instant messages to AOL members.

Bill Kirkner, Prodigy chief technology officer, said AOL has violated the spirit of open access for Internet users.

"AOL began denying access to a server established by AOL for the purpose of use by third parties, thus preventing PIM users from communicating with users of AIM. This action was taken in clear violation of the spirit of openness created by AOL's publication of the TOC protocol."

Kirkner added that AOL has no intention of opening access to their instant message servers anytime soon.

"For the last month, Prodigy has made numerous efforts to establish an agreement with AOL that would allow Prodigy members to continue to use PIM to communicate with users on the AOL AIM service, "Kirkner said. "AOL notified Prodigy that a decision had been made at their most executive levels to prevent users from accessing AIM through any mechanism other than AOL's proprietary AIM client software."

Kirkner said that AOL's actions are an affront to the entire industry that has greatly benefited from a shared access mentality of open collaboration.

"AOL's actions are in clear violation of the accepted industry practice for developing standards for new Internet applications. AOL's behavior, which may seem appropriate for proprietary services, is not appropriate in the environment of the Internet."

At the moment, instant messaging is a debacle of denied access among users outside of their respective provider.



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