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AOL: We'll Explore IM Interoperability

After years of shying away from compatibility with other instant messaging networks, AOL Time Warner is again indicating that it will consider ways to open its proprietary system.

The partner in this effort is longtime IM archrival Microsoft , and the announcement comes as part of a $750 million settlement between the two Internet giants over antitrust issues. The settlement centered around a payment to AOL and concessions allowing the media behemoth to use Microsoft Web browser and Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology.

Even with an agreement, there are no guarantees that interoperability actually will take place, however. New York-based AOL said only that it and Microsoft would "explore ways" to interoperate, and that any compatibility would come about only in a way that would "protect consumer privacy, security and network performance."

Jim Desler, a spokesman for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, said the two companies have little in terms of concrete plans besides a couple of scheduled meetings on the subject.

"After those meetings, we'll see where it goes from there," Desler said. "We're just exploring interoperability options, and there's no definitive agreement between the two companies yet. But we are optimistic as we launch this new relationship with AOL in the DRM area, that we that we can constructively and productively do the same in the IM area. This is something both companies realize that consumers want."

It's a radical change of position for AOL, which has fought hard to ensure that third parties can't connect to its AOL Instant Messenger network. In early versions of MSN Messenger, Microsoft provided users with the ability to sign on to AIM -- but ultimately was locked out of the service by technical obstacles implemented by AOL.

The media giant also in the past has clamped down on similar attempts by startups like Cerulean Studios, best known for its Trillian multi-network IM client.

"In forming a settlement, the companies sat down and looked at the areas where they competed and where they can work together, and some areas in terms of where we can cooperate came to the fore," Desler said. Instant messaging interoperability "is something that is of keen interest to consumers, and it has been tried in the past unsuccessfully, so the companies committed in this new spirit of cooperation to sit down and try to discuss ways to get IM interoperating."

Despite effectively getting AOL to reverse its position on allowing MSN access to the AIM network, Desler downplayed Microsoft's gain in the announcement.

"This is something we've tried in the past, and we're going to try again," he said. "If the companies are successful in addressing some of the difficulties and hurdles related to interoperability, then the consumers are the winners."

Said AOL spokesman Derick Mains, "Our policy has always been to protect our networks from those hacking into them, and nothing has changed on that."

Will it happen?

While the announcement itself is groundbreaking, interoperability would seem more likely if not for the implication that should either partner feel that a joint solution compromises "consumer privacy, security [or] network performance," the deal is off.

Indeed, that condition has been the crutch on which AOL has leaned in the past when evading pressure to open its network to outsiders. During the America Online-Time Warner merger, consumer advocates and rivals -- including Microsoft -- criticized the conglomerate for discouraging third-parties' attempts to create interoperability with the AIM network, which at the time was the largest IM network by a wide margin.

Those concerns prompted the Federal Communications Commission to mandate that before AOL can deploy advanced, broadband IM-based services, such as videoconferencing, it must either open its systems to exchanging messages with unaffiliated third party systems, or to prove that it is no longer "dominant" in the IM sector.

As a result, AOL initially said it would work to establish server-to-server interoperability with other IM servers and tested a link to IBM Lotus's Sametime (now Lotus Instant Messaging) enterprise IM system. But the media conglomerate said that the tests proved unfeasible, due to "the state of technology development, marketplace conditions, and the significant resources that would be required to peruse server-to-server interoperability," according to a report to the FCC from Steven Teplitz, the company's associate general counsel.

"While the Lotus test demonstrated that, at the very least, a gateway server for server-to-server interoperability could be effectively designed, the prototype server was limited in scope and functionality and demonstrated that true IM server-to-server interoperability would require further significant expenditures of time and resources to develop," Teplitz wrote.

Instead of pursuing full interoperability, the company said it would begin offering rebranded access to the AIM network to partners. So far, partners have included Apple Computer , which in 2002 launched its iChat AIM and Rendezvous IM client.

Now, AOL's Mains said the company is willing to take another look at whether it can make network interoperability work -- but also defended its strategy of promoting iChat-type arrangements.

"We will sit down and figure out whether [interoperability] is economically feasible in to do in a secure manner," he said. "The Apple iChat agreement is an example of how companies can work with us in developing secure and private AIM-accessible applications."

Toward an interoperable future

If AOL and Microsoft do succeed in establishing interoperability, the change would dramatically revamp the public IM landscape, which so far has been dominated by free, closed networks like AIM, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.

For one thing, it would enable AOL to meet the FCC's conditions on deploying those broadband, IM-based services -- bringing the network up to par with features offered by its two largest rivals.

It could also create the same kinds of situations seen in the wireless communications market, in which independent players are forced by market demand into collaborating with their interoperable peers. This, of course, has serious implications for Yahoo!, which declined to comment by press time on the news or on its policy toward interoperability.

"It's too early to discuss the details," said a spokesperson for the Sunnyvale, Calif. Web portal. In the past, the company has said that it supports industry efforts toward interoperability.

Additionally, the rise of compatibility among wireless networks led to dramatic levels of customer churn and losses to carriers' bottom lines. Communications industry vet David Gurle, formerly of Microsoft's "Greenwich" team and now with Reuters , said at the most recent InstantMessagingPlanet Conference that MSN, AOL, and Yahoo! quite rightly fear the loss of users that would result if interoperability is established among the consumer networks.

But he also said that interoperability shouldn't pose a problem to the networks if they're adept in rolling out add-on applications. Thus, interoperability could also pave the way for the major networks to offer specialized IM-based services in an effort to differentiate themselves -- similar to Nextel's wildly popular Push-to-Talk service, which became a selling point for the carrier.

In that spirit, AOL confirmed earlier this week that it is looking into scenarios like fee-based IM-centric dating services, an initiative first reported in The New York Times.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.