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iCAST Latest Victim of AOL's Messaging Skirmish

America Online Inc. is again at the center of a controversy involving instant messaging. This time, a company owned by Internet incubator CMGI Inc. is crying foul.

iCAST this week launched the iCASTER, a multimedia player with instant messaging capabilities. The messaging technology is powered by Tribal Voice, and iCAST boasted that it was compatible with instant messengers from AOL (AOL), Microsoft Corp.(MSFT), AT&T (T) and Tribal Voice.

According to published reports, AOL has blocked iCAST's access to its instant messaging service, which is estimated to have about 45 million members. AOL was not available for comment, but has said in the past that the company's policy is to prevent any unauthorized access to its technology.

Bill Golden, spokesman for iCAST, said Tribal Voice's technoogy used a protocol to connect to AOL that had been available to the public, so the company did not anticipate any problems.

"iCAST believes in open standards and free communications, which is why we developed the product the way we did," he said.

"We used a publicly-available protocol that AOL published in 1998 to connect to AOL's servers. It's not found on the Web site anymore, but Tribal Voice (the company that developed the messaging feature) has not had any problems with it in the past."

"We're not trying to steal users or hack into [AOL's] systems," Golden added. "We're just trying to make for a good user experience.

This is not the first time AOL has fought over its instant messaging service. Microsoft launched a new version of its messenger service in July that included a free Hotmail account and an AOL Instant Messenger account. AOL then blocked MSN users from accessing its services and a fight between the companies began. Microsoft ended up hacking into AOL's servers, and AOL worked block the intrusion. In November, Microsoft conceded, abandoning its connection to AOL's messaging service.

Microsoft, however, has teamed up with iCAST, AltaVista, and several other companies to request a congressional review of AOL's blocking access to its directory. The companies have also advocated an open-standard instant messaging system.

During the summer, the independent Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) began working on an open-standards messaging platform, and AOL has said that it will make accessibility a priority. But Golden said so far AOL has made empty promises.

"They've said on record, and told IETF that they would make [open standards] a priority," he said. "To date, nothing's happened."