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Macromedia Adds AIM, ICQ to Central

Developers working in the new Macromedia Central application execution and distribution environment will soon be able to integrate instant messaging and presence capabilities from America Online's IM networks.

According to terms of an agreement months in the making and announced today at Macromedia's MAX conference in Salt Lake City, developers creating Flash-based applications for distribution in Central will now have access to messaging and presence-detection capabilities from the AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ networks. Ideally, those developers will leverage AIM and ICQ APIs in adding IM and presence to the business and consumer applications they develop and sell via Central.

Version 1.0 of the free SDK is expected to be available in first quarter, and will offer basic messaging and presence capabilities. Additional features in AIM and ICQ will be exposed through the SDK in later versions.

For its part, America Online will promote Macromedia Central on the AIM client.

"Our relationship with America Online provides a wonderful foundation for Central developers to build a wide variety of presence-enabled, social applications for AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ with the great user experience and responsiveness of Macromedia Flash," said Kevin Lynch, chief software architect at Macromedia. "This partnership opens the door for developers to build applications that add context through online forums such as discussion groups, virtual classrooms, and multi-party chat."

The move represents the first occasion that AOL has made an SDK available to a developer community at large. There are an estimated 750,000-plus developers working in Macromedia Flash, and AOL hopes to spread its flavor of IM by allying itself with that population.

"This is huge for us," said AOL spokesman Derick Mains. "Flash developers are the third largest community of developers behind Windows and Java, and this gives us access to that entire community. And for the Flash developers, it gives them this great tool for building in presence and messaging."

Additionally, it's also a plus for Macromedia, which becomes the first channel by which independent developers can gain access to an AIM/ICQ SDK and APIs. Until now, most independent development work has been subject to retaliation by AOL because it leveraged AIM's OSCAR protocol without permission.

"This can help AOL and Macromedia, but it also helps the whole developer community," said Lea Hickman, senior director of market development at Macromedia. "It's added functionality that they could do in Central that they couldn't do anywhere else ... This is the first time that AOL has opened up and licensed out their messaging, so it's actually a huge deal."

Yet it's also in keeping with recent trends. For months, AOL has been working to embed its IM capabilities into applications already in use by businesses and consumers. For instance, PeopleSoft in July added AIM support to its AppConnect Enterprise Portal solution, and AOL recently struck a deal with Reuters to allow users of the upcoming Reuters Messaging 2.0 to connect to AIM through a gateway.

"I think Macromedia's Central initiative is going to be great for users, and for developers," said Ed Fish, senior vice president and general manager of AOL Desktop Messaging. "And I think what we're doing together is a great indication of how messaging is more than an application -- it's a set of core capabilities and components. It's about presence, and the ability to communicate in real-time, and that can find its utility in lots of applications."

But other players in IM are pursuing similar efforts. Microsoft's new Office System makes enterprise IM available within applications like Word, Excel and Outlook, while IBM Lotus is striving to do the same, more closely tying Lotus Instant Messaging into Notes. Microsoft also licenses its .NET Alerts SDK to companies interesting in leveraging the MSN Messenger network for broadcasting notifications and updates.

Meanwhile, AOL is wagering that by offering a free SDK and requiring payment only when developers make money from their applications -- AOL receives a cut of the fees a developer receives for their IM-enabled application -- it will extend the reach of AIM and ICQ.

"We want to make these capabilities available ... but we run a network, and it takes money to manage the world's largest real-time environment," Fish said. "We've been trying to figure out for a long time how we could do this, consistent with our desire to make this available to developers, but to do so in a way respectful to other applications and a network which really backs this up ... This is a perfect marriage, from that perspective."

Fish said AOL and Macromedia would be providing a handful of sample applications in connection with the SDK -- including Flash-based AIM and ICQ clients, and IM-enabled versions of Macromedia Central's Moviefinder, blog reader, and online auction tool, "where you could talk to the seller and ask them about the goods," Fish said. "In the classified ads they've done, there's ability to show presence there."

"Those are the [sample applications] that Macromedia is doing, and the sky's the limit for what their developer community does," he added.

Also in an effort to spur adoption, the SDK is cross-platform, supporting both AIM and ICQ simultaneously, which enables developers to add both networks into their apps.

"You want developers writing once -- I don't know if my application is going to be used in France or Hong Kong, where ICQ is hugely popular," Fish said.

Fish also said similar deals are in the works.

"We're creating a core set of functional capabilities made available to developers to embed in their applications under managed conditions," he said. "We'll see other examples of that ... We're actively in discussions for other kinds of application developments. In the game context, we're already ... working on a set of SDKs that will appeal to people in the games community, and there are many others. This is a first step toward making [AIM/ICQ] a platform."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.