AOL Unlocks Door to Open IM Standards

America Online, Inc. took its first step toward allowing open access to its popular instant messaging (IM) system with the submission on Thursday of an 18-page proposal to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an industry panel that will eventually approve a standard for adoption.

The move comes a week after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it will look into complaints from 43 technology companies that AOL is unfairly monopolizing the IM market before considering approval of the company’s proposed $124 billion (US$) merger with Time Warner, Inc.

Competitors Not Convinced

Some of AOL’s competitors are not convinced that the Internet giant’s move is genuinely conciliatory. For example, in published reports, Russ Begally, chief executive of Tribal Voice, Inc., an instant messaging company with about eight million users, characterized the proposal submission as a “stalling tactic to get through the merger.”

Begally noted that the proposal outlines how other companies will be able to connect their services to AOL’s IM, but it offers no timeline for when that may happen.

Tribal Voice is not the only company that AOL has blocked from tapping into its 20 million subscriber base. AOL also banned Microsoft, CMGI’s iCast, Prodigy and startup Odigo after their services began communicating with AOL’s members.

Roadmap for Hackers

However, some analysts feel that AOL has every right to be concerned about opening its most popular product to its competitors. Currently, its IM product has about 90 million registered users.

Unless AOL is able to establish guidelines to keep its subscribers from being barraged with spam or becoming prey to hackers, the company could stand to lose control of its greatest asset.

“The IETF knows better than anyone how complex and difficult an engineering challenge is posed by developing standards that protect the consumer,” the AOL proposal states. “Once protocols are published, they will be used by hackers and spammers as a roadmap to plan their attacks.”

AOL’s proposal favors allowing instant messages to be sent between computer servers rather than having them sent between individual computers — the way most instant messages are sent.

Real Debate Begins

AOL’s proposal is just one of about six that were submitted to the IETF for consideration. Members will now begin debating the merits of each before they establish an interoperability standard for instant messaging. According to David Marvit, co-chair of the working group, that could happen within a year.

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