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Edmund Fish, General Manager, AOL Desktop Messaging

Edmund Fish

America Online's desktop messaging division has navigated a series of twists and turns in recent months, none more significant than the company's decision to exit the high-end business IM space and pursue an interconnectivity deal with rival Microsoft.

Though AOL will connect its AIM text chat network to Microsoft's Live Communications Server (LCS), full interoperability remains an elusive dream for consumers. Yet, even as AOL retreats from the corporate IM space, the company has invested in business services on its consumer platform. So, what gives?

Edmund Fish, general manager of AOL's desktop messaging division, spoke with internetnews.com about challenges facing the company and the IM industry.

Q: Let's start off with the 'I' word. Your position has always been to block IM interoperability with MSN and Yahoo. Is that likely to change?

We will continue to work aggressively with international standards organizations to achieve interoperability. In the last few years, many questions have been answered, but there are many more need to be answered before we open up fully. We're trying to bring solutions to the market that solve interoperability for users. For example, we have deals in place with Reuters, Microsoft [with the Live Communications Server] and with Apple for iChat. We are proud of our record with respect to interoperability.

Q: Can you expand a bit on your work with international standards organizations?

We've been involved with the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) to come up with frameworks for interoperability. Everyone talks about protocols, but we are working on frameworks. Our frameworks allow our interoperability partners like Reuters and iChat to communicate, so it's not fair to say we have done nothing to achieve interoperability.

Q: But what about full interoperability? Do you think the day will come when an AIM standalone user will connect directly to a Yahoo user? What's holding that back?

There are technical issues; operational issues; and business issues. We are diligently working on all three of those issues. I think there is sufficient commitment to address that, but it's up to the users. In some user segments, interoperability is less of a priority. Some users are demanding more features from us and we are addressing that.

Q: But, you still frown on clandestine third-party applications like Cerulean Studios' Trillian or PDAapps' VeriChat connecting to AIM.

It's important for users and for the community at large that people's rights are respected. When networks are accessed without authorization, it yields a far inferior user experience. We haven't been vocal in our opposition, but we have been vigilant. We will assert what we believe our rights are.

Q: We've heard persistent rumblings that AOL may connect with Jabber, which supports the IETF XMPP protocol. Is there any truth to that?

I'm not listening to the same rumblings. Our goal is to have users connect to their networks and systems of choice. That's what our deal with Microsoft and LCS was about. I can imagine there are other kinds of systems out there, like Jabber. If and when there is something to announce, we'll announce it. But right now, that is just speculative chatter.

Q: You have retreated from the corporate IM market at a time when IM usage at the workplace is on the rise. Why?

The business IM market is at an interesting stage. We just put out a major survey last week that showed large gains in the context of IM in the enterprise, but we're still in an early phase. We see the market moving from phase one, where companies are figuring out how to manage it. And we're moving to a second phase where we're figuring out what are the opportunities.

A high-end IT instant messaging product isn't our primary focus. We see opportunities in the SMB and SOHO (small office, home office) marketplaces. From AOL's perspective, it's about services for those segments. We've partnered with WebEx for conferencing from the buddy list, and that's a service for the business user. It's not like we are ignoring the business user.

Q: There seemed to be a lot of initial excitement around IM bots (interactive agents), but that market never quite matured. Why?

It never took for a few different reasons. One, it was very early. When the market around enterprise was still in the management phase that I mentioned earlier, bots weren't as accepted. But, we are seeing a big surge now as the opportunity side of the equation kicks in. It's clear that we need to be investing in bridging and connectivity issues around how bots connect to the business back end. We've had success with promotional bots and consumer-oriented bots. Our promotional partners have enjoyed incredible success using bots on AIM.

But, for it to extend to the enterprise markets, we need connected code. I think we're getting there. I think you'll start to see more enterprise-focused, CRM-focused bots coming down the pike.

Q: There's a feeling that IM innovation has stagnated. It remains primarily a text chat medium with limited real communications capabilities. Is that a fair assessment?

I don't think that's fair at all. We're always innovating around IM, and I'm proud of what we've done. In February, we introduced "linked accounts" to transparently route messages to and from a user's primary account, and we see literally thousands of people creating and linking accounts everyday. That's an important innovation that ties into our Love.com service.

Another major innovation is the way in which presence is differentiated from regular instant messaging. Presence becomes the front door for all kinds of communications and services. The LCS partnership and the business messaging services on AIM are examples of that. As an industry, there's a lot of innovation going on, not only at AOL, but at Microsoft as well.

I can talk about another area of innovation here at AOL that is taking the notion of a simple one-to-one text exchange to shared activities. We introduced an invitation mechanism to launch a shared activity, like IM games. It extends to the business messaging services like voice conferencing with WebEx. Presence does not necessarily mean availability, and that comes from innovation.

It's wrong to say IM innovation has stagnated. Let's remember that instant messaging is barely seven years old, so it's still growing up. Look how long it took for e-mail to go mainstream, and we all know about the problems there. As IM grows, you'll see more innovation around the demands of users. Developers will respond to user patterns, demands and needs.