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.

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