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Lotus Sametime to Support Enterprise AIM

America Online continues gaining incremental support for its Enterprise AIM Gateway, securing a key agreement with another longtime partner, IBM's Lotus division.

Since early 1999, America Online and Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus have been collaborating on enabling connectivity to the AIM public instant messaging network from within Lotus Sametime, which is considered the leader in enterprise IM systems. Sametime 1.5, rolled out later that year, was the first upgrade to support AIM.

Now, Sametime's Connect client also will become compatible with the Enterprise AIM Gateway -- the Dulles, Va.-based Internet giant's play for the business IM market, and its bid to finally monetize its massive AIM audience, which it says numbers above 180 million users.

The Gateway, unveiled late last year, serves as an intermediary between a business's network and the AIM network, and provides a number of services sought-after by enterprise IM users.

Those include linking to corporate directories for authenticated logins to AIM, federated domain names (ensuring that employees are given company-specific, and authorized, Screen Names), and control by IT staff over users' ability to chat and share files with each other and the outside.

The Gateway also re-routes internal messages, keeping them off the Internet, and will ultimately provide encryption for users of the product, similarly to how Sametime handles its own IM.

"We'll be plugging the Gateway into the Sametime Connect client," said AOL spokesman Derick Mains. "Right now, if you send something through the Sametime network, there's gateway functionality -- the same as there will be with the AIM side."

Currently, AIM users are able to log on to the public service from within Sametime Connect, which features a Buddy List window containing separate lists for AOL and Sametime Buddies. AOL said it's working with Lotus on the backend, in hopes of including Sametime and AIM users in the same listing.

"We're working to come through our own domain name and authentication server -- 'domaining' in Sametime users, -- so there would only have to be one Buddy List," Mains added. "Still, traffic would go through the independent, distinct networks."

In recent weeks, following its Gateway announcement, AOL also had to update its own client to ensure compatibility with the system. Those updates are still ongoing, as encryption isn't expected to be supported until later in the year, when AIM 5.2 is rolled out.

AOL's Big Push

The expansion of the earlier agreement with Lotus is important for AOL, which is striking partnerships with enterprise software and services vendors to promote the Gateway. Last week, it struck a deal with the services unit of another old partner, Hewlett-Packard , to promote the AIM Gateway to clients. HP Services also gained the right to build in Enterprise AIM functions into its products through the arrangement.

AOL's strategy is intended to better its chances for competing with Microsoft , itself promoting a proxy solution that will provide enterprises with tools to administer MSN Messenger use behind the company firewall. Yahoo! , too, is coming to market with its own product.

Lotus is a key partner in such efforts: Sametime is thought to control 60 percent to more than three-quarters of the enterprise market, with penetration skewing higher still among larger organizations.

But whether such alliances will give businesses the incentive to adopt any of the three public IM leaders' products remains in question. For one thing, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo!'s products manages only their proprietary clients; competing solutions from IM security and compliance vendors, on the other hand, handle most or all IM protocols -- including Sametime.

Still, the public IM giants are taking some steps to address this shortcoming. AOL's solution incorporates technology from one of those vendors, FaceTime Communications, which has an agreement to resell the AIM Gateway as part of its multi-protocol offering. Microsoft, meanwhile, has announced compatibility with FaceTime and IMlogic's logging and auditing products -- a move that similarly encourages enterprises to buy Microsoft's gateway in addition to the security specialists' offerings.

AOL and Lotus also collaborated in years past in the server-level interoperability tests that had come as part of the conditions of the America Online-Time Warner merger. The tests, which were based on Session Initiation Protocol , were able to achieve some measure of interoperability between AIM and Sametime servers -- linking both IM networks to a single username, for instance.

However, AOL said the effort ultimately delivered an unscalable solution and an unsatisfactory user experience. As part of the merger conditions set by the Federal Communications Commission, AOL Time Warner must demonstrate interoperability if it plans to roll out any advanced services that use IM.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

Looking to better understand business-class IM? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring Conference and Expo, Feb. 24 and 25 in Boston. Sessions include "Deploying Enterprse IM" and "Integrating IM into a Traditional IT Structure."