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RealTime IT News

AOL Wins ICQ Patent

AOL Time Warner is the new owner of a patent that could give it an edge in the wars for control over desktop instant messaging, as well as a number of emerging areas of communications.

The patent, No. 6,449,344, had originally been granted based on work done by a team of developers at Mirabilis, which marketed the first public IM sensation, ICQ. (America Online acquired Mirabilis and its intellectual property in 1998, a year after the Israeli startup filed for U.S. patent protection.)

As a result, the patent governs a system of point-to-point communications involving users at a network of terminals. Users log on to the system with a unique identification code that remains the same regardless of their IP address, and can chat with other users logged on at the same time.

The U.S. patent also covers "presence," or the ability to tell users' availability, since each member's identification code alerts the system when they log on, which, in turn, provides availability information to other users. Additionally, it protects what are commonly known as Buddy Lists, described in the patent as "a predefined list of users whose connection status the user wishes to know."

It also protects the practice of notifying users when members of their contact lists log on, and of enabling users to limit who may see whether they're online.

That's a host of functionality common among all of the major public IM platforms, including those marketed by Microsoft and Yahoo! -- AOL's rivals in the consumer instant messaging space, and soon, in the enterprise IM sector as well. All three companies either already have corporate-class IM products on the market, or promise them within coming months.

Spokespeople from the three major IM networks declined to comment. Sources close to AOL, however, said that the media conglomerate is likely to seek some form of licensing revenue from its rivals instead of filing lawsuits outright -- but, the sources added, AOL is still considering its strategy with regard to the patents.

In any event, the ramifications appear wide-reaching in that the patent could cover not just desktop messaging, but also mobile networks -- an area in which the Big Three IM players are just beginning to dabble, through alliances with U.S. wireless carriers.

There's also a likelihood that it will affect other emerging areas, as well. For one thing, the document protects uses of IM that involve machine-to-user communications, since it defines the term "user" to encompass any entity. That extends AOL's patent beyond person-to-person chatting to marketing "bots" (such as ActiveBuddy's interactive agents) and the burgeoning area of interfacing with applications via IM (an area where Vayusphere and Sprint both have staked a claim.)

Presence is another area expected by many in the industry to see robust activity, as software designers develop ways to integrate Buddy Lists and availability-sensing into a wide variety of applications, such as groupware, sales support and help desk solutions.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.