RealTime IT News

AOL Enterprise IM Debuting Next Week?

After months of rumors and speculation, AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit is reportedly readying to make its big splash into the enterprise instant messaging (EIM) market. And what a splash it will be.

AOL has already had a huge impact on the world of real-time messaging with its own AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) client and network. The company will take the next big step next week, according to a story at the InfoWorld Web site, with the roll out of its AIM Enterprise Gateway server. The new offering will reportedly bring enterprise-strength features like message auditing and logging, as well as the ability to match a user's AIM name to a corporate directory.

The magazine quoted "sources familiar with AOL's plans" as saying the new AOL server offering will run on technology from Foster City, Calif.-based FaceTime Communications, a provider of network-independent enterprise solutions for the management and control of IM, and a long-time AOL business partner. AOL will reportedly put its name on FaceTime's technology and market it to the enterprise market. The server will also include a way for employees to use the new product for behind-the-firewall communications, and application-programming interfaces (APIs) to pipe AIM presence to third-party applications.

Separate from next week's announcement will be a secure IM client that will have both encryption and the ability to connect to the Enterprise Gateway server. The client should ship in Q1 of 2003, the magazine said, and is expected to offer SSL-based encryption, virus-protection integration, and authentication and name/space control.

Officials from AOL were not immediately available for comment on this story.

FaceTime President and CEO Glen Vondrick could not comment on the InfoWorld story, either, saying it was "(AOL's) plans and their announcement." But in an interview today, he said his company has been doing business with AOL for three years. "We pioneered the whole idea of working with them to gain authorized access to build business applications on the AOL network," he said. "That's not just a business or monetary agreement. It actually was a lot of technical support, interaction and exchange. So our engineering team and their engineering teams are very well-known to each other, and have passed the test of time in terms of being able to scale and be reliable with one another."

When FaceTime and AOL announced their first collaboration three years ago, AIM was still primarily known as a "consumer network that we were doing network extensions to," he added.

AOL has been tight-lipped about its enterprise IM offerings for the past several months now. Last May, digital trust-services provider VeriSign said it would distribute security credentials to enterprises that want to authenticate their employees to use encrypted messaging via AIM for a new "Enterprise AIM" service. AOL officials would not publicly comment on that announcement.

The company did speak to InstantMessagingPlanet on some of its EIM plans, when word of its offerings leaked out on its AOL Strategic Business Services Web site. AOL spokesperson Marty Gordon said in an interview last June that while some basic information on Enterprise AIM was up at the site, he could not comment on specifics because the product had not been formally announced. AOL at the time did say the Enterprise AIM product is "the first in a series of solutions that AOL is introducing to increase the value and manageability of AIM for organizations."

Then in July, AOL said it would no longer try to develop server-to-server interoperability via the SIP (Session-Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) standards. Instead, the online giant said it would focus its efforts on pursuing alternative solutions that will enable its IM users to communicate with the users of alternate IM providers.

On that point, FaceTime's Vondrick said that any interoperability problems were more on the business side of the equation, rather than the technology side. "You don't expect that all of a sudden everybody is going to be able to latch on or pay tariffs (to interoperate with all of the public IM networks). Relationships take a long time -- they're not one where you just fill out an application and you're interoperable all of a sudden."

The InfoWorld article asserted that AOL's thrust in the interoperability arena going forward will be driven by some of its partners that will provide access to the AIM network.

The enterprise-to-public IM space is certainly heating up. Earlier this month, Yahoo launched its own Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition IM offering that includes encryption, directory authentication, virus protection through the forced use of anti-virus software, and interoperability with the Yahoo Messenger consumer IM network.

The Yahoo EIM system, which Yahoo hosts ASP-style, also integrates with portal and business platforms from BEA Systems, Oracle, and TIBCO Software; it also ties into any LDAP-compliant directory, such as those from Novell eDirectory, the directory technology in Oracle9i Application Server, and Sun Microsystems' SunONE Directory Server. The product integrates with security, logging and auditing products from VeriSign, IMlogic and FaceTime.

While the new Yahoo offering doesn't interoperate with AIM or MSN Messenger, a top Yahoo official said the company supports the concept of interoperability, and hopes to see it one day. Yahoo is keeping an eye on SIP and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE) as a possible vehicle for that interoperability.

Microsoft, meantime, is definitely supporting SIP/SIMPLE in its Windows-based real-time communication efforts, code-named Greenwich, going forward. Already a part of Windows XP's Windows Messenger client, SIP It provides Microsoft with a base for presence, as well as the ability to support API's and all of the possible real-time content of text, speech, files and video.

Greenwich promises four key elements: security, manageability, standards-based architecture and extensibility. With these, developers and integrators can build on top of the Greenwich capabilities. "Many other solutions available today have pieces of those four areas," Microsoft said. "But very few bring all four as Greenwich does, in a Windows format the user knows and likes." Who will provide some of these added features? Microsoft would not specifically say, but a spokesperson noted that Microsoft partners will play a "key role" in extending the platform.

Logging and archiving will also be included in Greenwich, not only for those who want to scroll back and see what they've said in previous IM conversations, but for those in industry segments where logging and archiving are a regulatory requirement -- financial services or medical services, for example.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.