Financial Services IM Group Forms

Seven financial-services firms — Credit Suisse First Boston, Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS Warburg — have created a new group in order to encourage the development and adoption of instant-messaging (IM) standards in their industry.

The goal of the Financial Services Instant Messaging Association (FIMA) is to help companies and others in the financial-services industry to evaluate various IM systems to identify those that meet interoperability and security requirements. At the same time, those systems should provide a platform that shares both information and experiences among member firms.

FIMA says it is non-partisan, and is open to any company that wishes to promote Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) IM standards and protocols within the financial services community. By endorsing IETF instant-messaging standards, FIMA wants to promote “interoperability and beneficial competition among instant-messaging vendors.”

While 70% of all IM users utilize the technology for both personal and professional conversations from the workplace, according to IDC, public IM networks — AOL’s AIM and ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger — are not interoperable. Generally, users of one public IM network cannot communicate with users on other platforms, unless they forsake the use of the public IM client in favor of software that interoperates with those networks, like Trillian from Cerulean Studios. Those companies, though, don’t always have agreements with those public IM networks’ operators to enter those networks. Earlier this year, AOL shut out Trillian users from the AIM network; Trillian worked around those blocks and is currently operating with AIM, the world’s most widely used public IM net.

Business users, meantime, can buy enterprise IM (EIM) networks that can communicate with some or all of the public IM nets. Those systems, though, do not solve the interoperability problem across the public IM nets themselves.

FIMA officials did not make themselves available for comment by press time. The group this morning issued a press release on its formation and goals.

FIMA, when it was known as the Instant Messaging Standards Board (IMSB), met in late August with several corporate and public IM providers to both see how their systems operated and prod them to develop interoperability standards. AOL, FaceTime Communications, IBM, Jabber, Microsoft and Reuters were among the companies the group invited to meet with the group.

Tony Bamonti, Jabber vice president of open alliances and standards, said the meetings were one-on-one affairs, with each company presenting individually to the then-IMSB body. “Each vendor, alone, presented what they’re about and what their solution is all about, and how their solution addresses some of the current issues in the marketplace, both from a feature/function standpoint as well as from an interoperability standpoint.”

Mehdi Maghsoodnia, FaceTime chief operations officer and chief technology officer, said his company was invited as a partner of AOL, Microsoft and Reuters. “You were not supposed to give a pitch on your products so much as disclosing to them what your plans were for providing IM to the industry,” he said.

The interest of all parties involved so far with FIMA is to choose how to deploy IM across the industry to solve their needs, he also said. At the same time, FIMA and its members are educating themselves as a group, he said.

Although FIMA hit the issue of standards hard in its press statement of today, Maghsoodnia said his meeting with the board was only partly about standards. “I think some members are more vocal than others,” Maghsoodnia said. “But when you talk to them individually, they indicate that they have different needs. Interoperability is definitely one of them. The idea of IT control, detection and analysis also came up — how do they know what is being used, how do they control what is being used, how do they develop to these networks and integrate them into my business applications.”

“Interoperability is one of those sexy topics everyone wants to write about, but we had the whole day, and it wasn’t all about interoperability,” he added. “There’s a significant question in everyone’s mind — `How do I deploy an enterprise quality solution and continue to work with the public networks, because I need to have the reach to the already-adopted community out there?'”

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The Standards Battle

In forming the group, FIMA is trying to rectify a situation that has been building in scope and complexity since the dawn of IM, when networks were built without the thought of interoperability. The situation intensified in 1999, when AOL first blocked MSN Messenger users from accessing the AIM network.. Since then, each of the four public IM nets have built in services and features to attract users to their own networks.

The IETF has already okayed SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and its associated SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) as standards for instant messaging. SIP is modeled upon other Internet protocols such as SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), and is used to establish, change, and end sessions between one or more users in an IP-based network.

IBM/Lotus has already embraced SIP/SIMPLE in the newest release of Sametime. IBM has been attracted to SIP for Sametime for interoperability among EIM systems, as well as for connections to the public IM networks. While the latter is in doubt, the former is much more likely to come.

One bright sign in the public IM interoperability battle is Yahoo’s indication that it is looking at incorporating the SIP/SIMPLE standard in both its public and enterprise software products. Yahoo last week launched its own enterprise IM platform, which connects to the Yahoo public IM network.

Yahoo sees problems with SIP/SIMPLE, though. “It only contains about one-tenth of the functionality we need,” said Ken Hickman, Yahoo director of product strategy for the enterprise solutions division. “It’s really basic messaging and presence. For example, a lot of features we have — the file transfers, our IMvironments (“skins” for the instant-messaging window), the PC-to-phone capabilities, the chat stuff — none of that is covered under SIMPLE at this point.”

Even with its limitations, SIP/SIMPLE picked up additional presence in the financial-services arena earlier this week, with the launch of Reuters Messaging (RM). The new IM software supports the standard — it is based on Microsoft Corp.’s upcoming Greenwich real-time communications platform, which will integrate presence into the Windows .NET Server 2003 platform to give enterprises access to voice, video and data collaboration.

Microsoft has been a big supporter of SIP/SIMPLE; it is already integrated into the Windows Messenger IM client found in Windows XP.

One big bump in the road for the adoption of SIP/SIMPLE across IM products came from AOL. The online giant, which once said it was interested in SIP/SIMPLE, abandoned server-to-server interoperability earlier this year, saying it was too costly. Instead, AOL is now looking to open the AIM network by establishing hosting agreements with third-party IM providers.

Another protocol, meantime, is expected to have an IETF working group dedicated to it this week — an important step on the road to becoming a standard. XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) is an XML-based protocol developed by Denver-based Jabber, which already claims to have 60,000 servers deployed in the EIM market. Those servers are already able to achieve interoperability based on the XMPP protocol, Bamonti said.

“There’s a mechanism built into the protocol that allows the servers to automatically find each other if they’re on a publicly available network, and exchange presence information, roster information and message information,” he said. “They’re basically interoperable across the network and across domains from the outset.”

For its part, Jabber says XMPP is able to get onto a standards track because of its broad adoption, which Bamonti said is much wider than any SIMPLE implementation. But SIP and XMPP shouldn’t necessarily be seen as competitors. “(XMPP) has very good potential even as a compliment to SIMPLE, in acting in server-to-server interoperability,” he said.

SIMPLE doesn’t currently have any server-to-server specifications, as “they just haven’t gotten that far,” Bamonti pointed out.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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