RealTime IT News

AOL, Reuters Strike IM Compatibility Deal

Users of America Online's AOL Instant Messaging and ICQ networks will be able to exchange messages with users of Reuters plc 's IM system, thanks to a new interoperability deal between the two so-called "gated communities."

Like most of the largest networks in instant messaging, AIM and the year-old Reuters Messaging network are both closed environments -- meaning that users of other networks, like Microsoft's .NET Messenger Service or Yahoo! Messenger can't trade messages with AOL or Reuters' userbase. (That is, without using some sort of unauthorized -- and occasionally blocked -- method, like Cerulean Studios' Trillian multi-network client.)

But through the new arrangement between the financial services information giant and America Online, the Internet unit of New York-based AOL Time Warner , the two companies agreed to allow access to each other's users.

Spokespeople said the two are working on a gateway that would enable translation of AIM's OSCAR protocol to and from Reuters Messaging's native protocol -- Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE).

Slated for launch in first quarter as part of a new enterprise offering, the gateway will sit behind the firewall at businesses using Reuters Messaging. Reuters Messaging users would then be able to add contacts on the free AIM network to a new "AIM" tab on their contact lists. At the same time, AIM users would be able to add Reuters Messaging contacts to their Buddy Lists. Encrypted and digitally signed conversations using the latest AIM client also would be supported.

The agreement also applies to AOL's slightly smaller ICQ network, which uses an OSCAR variant.

Terms were not disclosed of the deal.

In keeping with the Reuters Messaging architecture, Reuters users be authenticated locally, and their whose usernames will appear in AIM Buddy Lists with an appended "@reuters.net" domain name. AOL controls enterprises' and communities' private domains on AIM and will provision "@reuters.net" to Reuters Messaging clients.

"What we'll be doing is registering and publishing presence against '@reuters.net' names in our network," said Bruce Stewart, senior vice president at AOL. "One of our services is offering private domain names and federated authentication, and ... we provide a community with the ability to get a private domain that would map through users' e-mail addresses ... The same notion applies here -- Reuters will have the ability to authenticate users that it signs up against the '@reuters.net' name."

The agreement comes as part of AOL's wider effort to sanction certain communities and applications that ride on its IM platform, while simultaneously tacitly discouraging unauthorized uses of its network. In June, the company launched a certification program and signed IM gateway vendor IMlogic as its first partner. Such arrangements, financial details of which were not revealed, bring in revenue to AOL's Messaging Solutions Group, while providing Boston-based IMlogic with what's essentially a seal of approval -- indicating that it and its clients won't, for instance, get cut-off by AOL if the network again decides to close its systems to unauthorized applications.

Those efforts by AOL also comes as one of the media conglomerate's major rivals in the messaging space, Microsoft's MSN network, is launching a certification push of its own. The company recently began asking third-party IM clients and networks that use its .NET Messenger Service -- the IM system underlying MSN Messenger -- to apply to become authorized partners. While Microsoft has provided few details on the arrangement, it's generally thought that partners will have to pay for continued access to the network. IM developers and networks that don't reach an agreement with Microsoft risk being cut-off from the .NET Messenger Service next month.

Ironically, Reuters Messaging is based on Microsoft's Office Live Communication Server technology -- the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant's upcoming foray into SIMPLE-based enterprise instant messaging and collaboration.

Interoperability implications

The deal also furthers AOL's strategy on creating compatibility with other networks without a full commitment to opening its network up to server-to-server interoperability. Instead, the company has for some time been pursuing a policy of expanding its reach by providing access to partnered user communities. That's the route AOL first took with Apple Computer , enabling the PC maker's .Mac users to trade messages with the larger AIM community.

Such a policy, AOL has maintained, ensures the technical integrity and user-friendliness of its network. Similarly, it's said in the past that opening its network to unauthorized third-party clients or server-to-server interoperability proves unstable or somehow unusable from a user perspective, or not viable from a business perspective. For instance, AOL briefly experimented with a server-to-server project with IBM Lotus, but claimed the results were unfeasible.

"We said all along we were interested in looking at ways to expand our community, and expanding it in such a way and connect ourselves to other communities and other networks, but to do so in a way that was protective ... of network scalability, and network reliability," Stewart said.

AOL's stance on interoperability through affiliated communities also ties neatly into its business strategy of selling federated authentication and private domains to corporations using its commercial product, the AIM Enterprise Gateway. Just as users of affiliated communities appear on the wider AIM network with a username derived from their e-mail address -- johnsmith@mac.com for .Mac users, and in this latest case, johnsmith@reuters.net -- corporate users behind the AIM Enterprise Gateway receive a similar username when they appear on AIM: jsmith@company.com, and the like.

But AOL's shunning of full server-to-server interoperability has, at times, dogged the company. One of the conditions set by the Federal Communications Commission on the AOL-Time Warner merger required that before it could deploy broadband- and IM-based services like videoconferencing, the company must either open its IM network -- the largest in the space -- to interoperability with rivals, or that it prove that it no longer held a "dominant" position in the industry. While AOL still maintains the largest network, compared to MSN or Yahoo!, it convinced the FCC earlier this year to release it from the restriction.

It's also not clear what the implication will be for AOL's position on server-to-server interoperability, now that compatibility with SIMPLE and a Live Communication Server-based product has been proven.

For Reuters, the deal is a major boost as well, in that its users gain access to the largest public IM network.

"We certainly always have been focused on ... the reach of our end users," said David Gurle, executive vice president and global head of collaboration services at Reuters. "The financial services industry is very much focused on business-to-business and business-to-consumer interactions ... and, we have seen strong penetration in the industry of AOL in business-to-business and business-to-consumer interaction."

"From customers, the number-one request has been that we need this reach in a compliant, secure way with AOL," he added. "We worked with AOL and found out a way to arrange connectivity with them."

Gurle also said that Reuters will continue to pursue similar agreements with other IM networks as well.

Meanwhile, similarly to AOL and Microsoft, Reuters has embarked on a partnership strategy of its own, signing a deal with IM gateway vendor Akonix in July.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

How does the dramatically changing competitive landscape in public and enterprise IM affect your business? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Fall Conference and Expo, Oct. 15 and 16 in San Jose, Calif. Sessions include "Public vs. Enterprise IM" and "State of Interoperability and the Impact on Your Business."