Messenger Wars Continue Between Microsoft, AOL

Microsoft Corp. Wednesday took another lunge at archrival America Online Inc. in the new fighting arena of instant messaging, announcing it will publish its MSN Messenger Service protocol.

Microsoft has generally not been a big backer of the open source effort, in contrast to AOL whose subsidiary Netscape Communications Corp. is embracing the trend the development of its latest browsers. However, the two have managed to switch sides for this particular duel as Microsoft hopes to force AOL to participate in its goal of interoperable messaging systems.

The two companies have been sparring since Microsoft launched the service on July 22, and included access to AOL’s proprietary Instant Messenger (IM) as part of the product.

Microsoft expects that by unveiling its protocol, the company will demonstrate its commitment to providing free, interoperable Internet communicate tools. To back up its claims on consumer demand for such services, Microsoft also announced that the service has garnered more than 1.3 million users since its July launch.

Microsoft believes that opening the protocol will allow other services to improve communication with MSN Messenger, enhance the interoperability of competing messenger models, and further the development of a ratified industry standard. The protocol will be published by the end of the month.

“Our goal is to help people enjoy the benefits of free and open communication on the Internet, and we are pleased that this is resonating with so many consumers,” said Brad Chase, senior vice president for Microsoft’s consumer and commerce group.

Since 1997, Microsoft has been involved in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and plans to develop a permanent standard for instant messaging interoperability. The company is an active member of the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP) working group, which now advocates that all vendors follow Microsoft’s initiative in publishing the service protocol.

When the MSN service was launched, a hacking war ensued as MSN infiltrated the AOL network. AOL blocked the MSN service’s entry, calling it a security threat, and also blocked Yahoo! Inc. and Prodigy Communications Corp. messaging services.

The move was followed by several volleys of regained access and further blocking, as well as a barrage of dealmaking in which AOL recruited Earthlink, MindSpring and corporate specialist Novell to its cause.

AOL offered a business proposal to Microsoft to integrate the services, which was refused. When the IMPP working group asked AOL executives to open the proprietary service two weeks ago, the company replied that the AOL Instant Messenger’s 43 million users can be accessed by independent ISPs once a co-branding deal is established.

Adding to the controversy, reports emerged this week about a possible bugs in both messaging products.

The MSN bug allows anyone to access a user’s messenger account through their Hotmail log-in, as long as the intruder has physical access to the PC or device used for the service.

Security experts this week also discovered a possible buffer overflow error running in AOL’s IM, which the company may be running against its own users in order to detect the presence of MSN Messenger, according to reports.

The possible security flaw in the error brought out another minor scandal, in which a Microsoft programmer contacted security consultants to publicize the issue.

According to the New York Times report, the programmer, supposedly representing an independent consulting firm, used an easily traced Yahoo! account to send out the alarm.

The bufferoverflow was confirmed by Robert Graham, CTO of Internet security site Network Ice, on his own site. Graham also said that AOL has made 13 changes to its server code since the feud began.

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