Gaim's Ground in a Closed IM World
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One of the more actively developed open source projects, the Gaim instant messenger client, is out with its latest incremental release.
As for incremental gains in its quest to interface openly with major IM networks and open IM, the project is realistic about the cat-and-mouse game it often must play in order to connect to commercial IM platforms.
Gaim is a multi-protocol, multi-platform instant messaging client that accesses the MSN Messenger, AOL AIM, ICQ, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu and Zephyr networks and runs on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.
Exact numbers of users are not known, according to Gaim lead developer Sean Egan, because users can get a copy of the software from a number of different places that they can't track or measure. The tool is included in virtually every Linux distribution, as well.
But Egan said the previous release (v.0.77) counted 245,285 downloads from SourceForge with Windows users making up about half.
Although on its face, the multi-platform open source tool appears to be in competition with the commercial Trillian product, Egan said that's not the case.
"I don't see Wingaim (the windows version of Gaim) as competition to Trillian at all," Egan told internetnews.com. "Gaim's developers talk to Trillian's developers and we get along just fine. They offer a great product with different goals. We're not competition -- just an alternative. There are a bunch of well-known cases where we've cooperated and shared with each other."
But the spirit of cooperation and sharing is not uniform across all of the public instant messaging networks that Gaim accesses, even if other projects, such as Jabber, are cordial.
"Given that Gaim supports the Jabber protocols, it is actually part of the Jabber community, not competitive in any way," said Peter Saint Andre, executive director of the Jabber Software Foundation. "While Gaim enables you to connect to any IM service or network, the Jabber community is building its own network and also enabling organizations to run their IM servers, rather than connecting to one of the consumer IM services. The two goals are complementary rather than competitive."
Saint Andre said he thinks the open protocols approach, upon which e-mail and the Web itself are built, can work for IM too. "Our focus is on building open protocols, so that open-source projects won't always need to reverse-engineer the closed protocols created by the likes of AOL and Microsoft," he said. In addition, he said focusing on the protocol level creates opportunities for freeware and shareware developers, as well as for commercial implementations.
Microsoft's MSN group has said it's willing to become interoperable with other networks -- but not necessarily by supporting an open source project like Gaim.
A spokesman for MSN told internetnews.com IM interoperability remains a goal for Microsoft and others in the industry and that MSN has programs in place to help with this today, including .NET Messenger Partner Program and Messenger Connect.
That said, the spokesman added, it's important to MSN that the right relationships are in place to help ensure the company's network is protected from unauthorized interfacing by third parties. "Our goal is to work with the instant messaging community to ensure they understand the importance of delivering secure network services and work with third-party service providers who have entered into appropriate agreements with MSN to access the service."
The MSN spokesperson also confirmed that Gaim is currently not part of MSN's .NET Messenger Partner Program or Messenger Connect.
AOL's policy is similar to MSN's: friendly, but not entirely welcoming.
"Our policy has always been to protect our networks from those hacking into them and nothing has changed on that front," AOL AIM spokesperson Krista Thomas told internetnews.com. "Tools like Gaim are in clear violation of our terms of service and our copyrights."
AOL does have a program however, called the AIM Certified Application Partner Program that allows companies to utilize AIM protocols in their products. "Through a close working relationship we are also able to ensure that the privacy of our users and the integrity of our network infrastructure are fully protected," the spokesperson said.
Gaim's Egan is unapologetic about accessing the public MSN and AOL networks. "I don't pretend to know anything about law, but I don't think there's any injustice being done," he said.
"Both services have servers listening for protocols [an open protocol in MSN's case] on the Internet. We write software to implement these protocols. Microsoft won't complain if we write a client that talks to its IIS Web server, but if we write one that talks to its MSN Messenger servers, we need to be a partner?"
In a typical case of "cat and mouse" for Gaim, the project ran into trouble a few years back when AOL blocked Jabber's AIM transport, which is the same code that Gaim uses. Gaim figured out each block attempt, but was then countered by AIM. In this case at least, AOL eventually gave up the chase.
"If you properly implement the protocol, there's not much they can do to stop you," Egan explained. "Yahoo has been giving us the most trouble lately. Gaim and Trillian have been working in close collaboration to keep both clients functional."
Yahoo was unable to comment regarding its IM platform by press time.
According to Ferris Research Analyst Ben Littauer, the problem public IM services have with clients like Gaim is revenue.
"Third-party clients, Gaim included, don't support advertising, so the revenue stream goes away," he said. Littauer sees Gaim gaining improved penetration rates on Linux where not all of the Public IM services have provided native clients, rather than Windows.
"It's certainly under 5 percent penetration," Littauer said. "The vast majority of IM users today are still using the native client, and the vast majorities are not in corporate environments."