AOL Puts Brakes on Odigo Messenger Interoperability

Fuel was added to the instant messaging fire Sunday when Odigo Inc., developer of the Odigo Messenger, said America Online Inc. blocked its users from access to the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) network.

Ten days ago, Odigo released Odigo Messenger 2.5, which was interoperable with ICQ and AIM, both of which are owned by AOL. Odigo 2.5 allowed users who downloaded the software to sign into their AIM and ICQ accounts simultaneously and then load their buddy lists from both popular services. Odigo users did not need to have AIM or ICQ, but did need screen names from the services to access the buddy lists.

AOL has not blocked Odigo interoperability with ICQ. AOL has not made its two IM services interoperable, though it has said in the past that it would do so if there was enough demand.

In the past year AOL, which controls more than 90 percent of the instant messaging market, has blocked Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc., AT&T and Prodigy Communications Corp. from offering similar IM interoperability. The skirmishes between AOL and Microsoft led to Microsoft hacking into AOL’s servers to get around the blockage while AOL scrambled to stop the intrusion. Microsoft conceded the fight in November.

But Odigo said this is the first time the Internet heavyweight has responded to a small, private messaging company with blocking. Avner Ronen, vice president of strategic development for Odigo, said open IM standards are a threat to AOL.

“By opening the standards and allowing any messaging company to communicate with their member base it will actually make the user, when he goes and chooses his instant messaging client, look not on the site of the network but on the functionality of the type of services that are making it fun and easy to use,” he said.

“We provided AOL interoperability as an option for our users because of an overwhelming call for it. IMs are an everyday application for over 100 million people worldwide and are poised to be a key infrastructure for Internet commerce, brand marketing and customer service. Without IM interoperability the social surfer suffers, the Internet consumer suffers, business communication suffers, and e-commerce suffers — everyone loses.”

Ronen said AOL’s move to block Odigo, while unfortunate, is a validation of the young company’s product. The company has reported more than 100,000 new registered users since Odigo 2.5’s launch, giving it about 700,000 in all.

Ronen said Odigo wants to work with AOL to come to a solution.

“We are currently discussing our next move regarding AIM interoperability,” Ronen said. “We want to work with AOL to forge an agreement that will benefit all IM users.”

Odigo has attempted to contact AOL but has yet to receive a response.

In response to criticism in the past, AOL has contended that it does support interoperability and the creation of an open standard for the industry. The company has argued that it has opened its service to outside providers by extending royalty-licensing agreements, like the pact it forged Monday with Satyam Infoway, India’s largest private ISP. The two companies made a multi-year agreement to distribute a co-branded version of AIM to Satyam customers through the SatyamOnline portal and its affiliated Web sites.

But other companies in the industry say AOL maintains a closed, proprietary instant messaging service that prohibits the free flow of interoperable communications over the Internet. Last week, 43 leading technology and instant messaging companies wrote a letter to the heads of the Fed

eral Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission urging the federal regulators to take into account AOL’s behavior in the IM marketplace as it considers the proposed merger between Time Warner Inc. and AOL.

“As IM continues to utilize content created by companies such as Time Warner, the potential merger raises even greater concern about AOL blocking their users from access to non-AOL users,” Margaret Heffernan, chief executive officer of iCAST Corp. said last week. iCAST has been one of the companies leading the crusade against AOL in the IM arena.

However, Tricia Primrose, AOL spokesperson, countered that AOL is not interested in developing quick fixes to make instant messaging interoperable if it sacrifices user privacy.

“One of the side effects of the open mail standard is spam,” Primrose said. “E-mail is wholly interoperable, but we’re not going to allow a quick-fix open standard like some of these groups propose to compromise the security of our members.”

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