RealTime IT News

Lycos Joins Portal IM Ranks

Terra Lycos aims to become the next major portal player in instant messaging, with the planned consolidation of its existing platforms onto a new messaging service based on IBM's Lotus Sametime.

The move looks to bring Lycos on par with peers including America Online , Yahoo! and Microsoft's MSN, all of whom have invested heavily in promoting their instant messaging platforms, which they position as standards for Internet-wide public communications.

Other portals, including Excite Network and AltaVista, also promote their IM clients to users, though they have gained a far smaller share of the marketplace than have AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

On the other hand, Cambridge, Mass.-based Lycos has maintained multiple IM offerings, as a result of the 2000 merger between Lycos.com and Spain's Terra Networks. Since then, the company has supported IBM-based instant messaging in Terra's old markets, while Lycos used a proprietary system. The company would not disclose how many users it has on the systems, though comScore Networks estimates that about 200,000 consumers use Lycos' U.S. IM network -- a slim figure compared to the 150 million last reported by market leader AOL's AIM.

Lycos now expects that its work with Lotus will culminate in a single, unified consumer platform before January. While the resulting, as-yet-unnamed IM client will be offered for free for consumers, the portal also said it plans to introduce a paid version later in the year, which would sport additional features.

In addition to chat, the client will feature integration with Lycos' e-mail, to-do lists, and Web storage -- functionality typical for portals' IM platforms. Lycos also said its client eventually would support video- and audio-sharing, which the other providers also offer, as well as other features that spokespeople declined to describe.

"It gives a leading platform on which to develop next-tier functionality," said spokesman Michael Coddington. "We've done some work internally on determining what those [features] are, but we're not ready to go primetime with those yet."

But Michael Loria, Lotus' director of advanced collaboration, said that he expects the agreement will entail integrating other IBM technologies into the IM service -- such as e-meetings, e-learning, and collaboration software.

SMS and SIMPLE Support

One confirmed feature that will separate Lycos' IM product from those of the big-name providers will be SMS support, enabling two-way chat via both supported wired and wireless devices, such as cell phones -- a function found only in AOL's ICQ.

Lycos' offering also will differ from the big three portals' IM clients through its support for the Sametime Instant Messaging Gateway, which is based on the IETF's proposed SIMPLE (Session-Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) protocol.

As a result, the Lycos consumer IM platform will allow users to communicate with users of other clients that support SIMPLE. That puts the portal ahead of the three dominant players in public IM, whose support for interoperability protocols remains largely in the planning stage -- if they exist at all.

Microsoft currently offers limited support for SIMPLE, though only through its Windows XP operating system. The Redmond, Wash. software giant also plans to make SIMPLE a key part of its upcoming "Greenwich" platform, which is envisioned as a framework on which businesses and third-party developers can build IM and other communication applications. Greenwich is expected to ship mid-2003.

Other private-label IM vendors also support SIMPLE in their enterprise-level offerings.

Meanwhile, AOL quietly shelved its plans to support SIMPLE in July, after concluding that efforts to link AIM and ICQ with other IM servers using the protocol would be prohibitively costly and limited in functionality. Yahoo!, additionally, has said only that it is considering adding SIMPLE support to its future releases.

Coddington added that Lycos would work with enterprises and competing public instant messaging players on the prickly task of hammering out deals with other IM networks that would establish SIMPLE-based interoperability.

"We are always in talks with the major players in a variety of different fronts, and IM is one of those," he said. "Clearly, there's a push for interaction among the big IM communities. The IBM technologies are quite advanced at enabling [interoperability] from a technical perspective, and we just need to put in place the business agreements to do so."

Of course, that's likely to prove difficult. Many agree that business factors -- such as the working out of licensing arrangements, and fears about potentially losing members to a competing network -- currently overshadows technology problems as the key hindrance to the spread of interoperability among major public IM players.

FaceTime Communications Chief Executive Glen Vondrick told InstantMessagingPlanet earlier this week that concern over a lack of viable business relationships -- more than technology issues -- contributed to the scrapping of the AOL project.

Added Lycos' Coddington, "There's some fear of opening them up on a variety of fronts: the pure infrastructure font, the security front, and also -- the driving factor now -- the business front."

"This is nothing new," he said. "But ultimately, the end users want to have this kind of usability. It's up to the providers to offer it to them and to do it in a way that meets their business requirements."

On the enterprise front, Lotus and Lycos hinted at planned business-side IM products, but shied from disclosing details.

"This the first major commercial-to-consumer bridge," Loria said. "It will allow consumers and businesses to better integrate and create new forms of customer interaction."