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AOL Looking to Monetize Third-Party IM Gateways

America Online is expected today to announce the launch of its Certified AIM Partner Program, an initiative designed to derive revenue from AOL Instant Messenger management gateways offered by third parties.

Boston-based IMlogic becomes the first third-party gateway provider to join under the program. As a result, AOL said it has "certified" IMlogic's IM Manager gateway as being authorized and fully supported on the AIM network. In return, AOL receives "certain economic and business terms," said Bruce Stewart, senior vice president at AOL's Strategic Business Solutions unit.

In essence, establishing a partnership program is a shrewd move by AOL to make money off of the efforts of firms like IMlogic, which offer multi-network IM gateways -- behind-the-firewall proxies that enable enterprises to log and manage employees' instant messaging usage.

But to better monetize its own IM network, AOL in recent months has been marketing an instant messaging proxy of its own -- the AIM Enterprise Gateway. Yet the AIM Enterprise Gateway only offers control over and logging for AOL's IM network, while third-party vendors like IMlogic, FaceTime Communications, and Akonix manage traffic to and from all of the major networks.

As a result, businesses in which employees aren't standardized on AIM are naturally more likely to be attracted to the multi-network offerings from third-party vendors than an AIM-only solution.

By now launching a partnership program, AOL is working to make money from vendors, who sell into clients that are looking for more than an AIM Enterprise Gateway. As part of the partnership agreement, AOL exacts those unspecified "business terms" for indicating that a vendor has been certified.

It's part of a larger strategy by AOL to squeeze revenue from its IM network. In addition to beefing up its offerings for enterprise customers with a proxy, AOL last week began beta-testing an encrypted version of its AIM client -- with an eye to charging enterprise customers for certification services. The company also has confirmed in recent weeks that it's exploring new IM-based services for consumers, such as dating services.

Benefits to AOL and the industry

AOL and IMlogic are quick to point out that there are important benefits to enterprise customers of the partnership program. For instance, it mandates a level of support from AOL for certified solutions.

Additionally, AOL and IMlogic said they would work closely together to develop new features or applications to be delivered over the AIM network.

"Customers will be able to take advantage of emerging next-generation solutions delivered by both companies," said Jon Sakoda, director of products for IMlogic. "Both AOL and IMlogic have recognized that as customers increase their requirements for security and features, it's incumbent upon AOL and IMLogic to meet those demands."

AOL hasn't named as a launch partner another third-party vendor with whom it's had a close relationship: Foster City, Calif.-based FaceTime. Indeed, the IM auditing and gateway vendor actually provided much of the technology underlying the AIM Enterprise Gateway, and -- importantly to AOL's efforts to gain revenue from its network -- FaceTime is a reseller of the AIM Gateway as part of its own multi-network offering.

AOL maintained that ties between the two companies remain strong, despite there being no formal certification agreement.. Sources at AOL also said the IM network giant is in talks with a number of potential partners, without disclosing names.

Meanwhile, FaceTime President and Chief Executive Glen Vondrick agreed that while the two companies remain close, but wasn't sure whether he'd sign onto the new partnership program.

"We're looking at whether we like our current agreements and want to expand them," he said. "After all, for four years, we've been working with AOL and other networks, and we're pleased to have them come out with a program that enables other partners to sign on ... We're looking at other partnership programs too."

Peter Shaw, chief executive at Akonix, also shied away from describing the state of his firm's relationship with AOL. However, if San Diego, Calif.-based Akonix does sign on to the Certified AIM Partnership Program, the move would boost its credibility with potential customers. That's because the firm, unlike IMlogic and FaceTime, manages IM traffic without having a formal relationship with either Microsoft or Yahoo!. (Rivals typically point to this fact during sales pitches, claiming that the firm's solution is unauthorized and probably less reliable than theirs; Akonix executives, meanwhile, routinely dismiss such talk as empty "fear, uncertainty, doubt"-type marketing tactics.)

In any case, Vondrick said he viewed AOL's steps toward certifying vendor solutions as beneficial to the industry. For instance, it could potentially simplify the available options in the competitive field of IM gateway vendors, while also establishing some standards of quality.

"We've always been trying to get [AOL] to validate our vision by encouraging them to take enforcement actions or to partner with other [vendors], because otherwise the industry won't mature as fast as it should," he said. "This is going to shorten sales cycles, and going to help [potential clients] in getting down to make a sales decision. I think those are all positive things."

The AOL effort comes months after Microsoft announced its own Connect for MSN Messenger proxy, which functions similarly to the AIM Gateway. But unlike AOL, MSN opted to launch the product in close partnership with third-party gateway vendors, including IMlogic and FaceTime. (Connect requires a third-party IM management solution to fully control and audit IM use in the enterprise; on a standalone basis, the Microsoft product provides only namespace management.)

Yahoo!, meanwhile, has strategic agreements with FaceTime and IMlogic, but it's not known whether these agreements entail the same sorts of benefits for Yahoo! as AOL hopes to derive from its certification program.

"Once everybody who has an enterprise initiative gets a little more grounded, they'll realize that it's a multi-network world, and that they will not be able to attain the revenue projections that they'd hoped," Vondrick said. "They're all going to have to do something like this if they hope for gain revenues from their enterprise initiatives. The reality is if a customer has a choice between a single network solution and a multi-network one, and they're priced similarly, then it's obvious which once they're going with."

Once all the networks have adopted similar certification efforts, "introductory conversations with clients about which networks a vendor is partnered with ... will be eliminated," he added. "You're either in, or you're out. And that helps the industry, by helping the buyers not to be confused."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.