It is nice to see the monopolist shoe on the other foot. Last week, Microsoft was on the receiving end of some nasty business with arch-rival America Online. Here's the deal.
Microsoft released Messenger version 1.0, which is designed to be able to communicate with AOL's Instant Messaging users. But just a few days after the release, AOL blocked Microsoft users from sending messages to AOL IM users. Microsoft programmers, in turn, developed a workaround and immediately issued an update to its Messenger client. The last time I checked this weekend, Microsoft Messenger clients could still talk to AOL clients.
Petty? Sure. But also inevitable. Instant Messaging is one of AOL's killer applications. Just about every teenager in America uses it these days, not to mention other heavy AOL users. For those of you who aren't aware of IM, it is a messaging applet that can tell you whether your "buddies" -- other AOL users whom you specify -- are currently online in the AOL universe. When a buddy logs in, you are notified (by the sound of a creaky opening door), and you can then click on their screen name and type in a text message that is immediately sent to the user.
IM is an incredibly useful application, even for people like me (whose teenage years are long gone). Because I have a continuous connection to the Internet at home and work, I can IM family members without disrupting phone calls or meetings. Even non-AOL users can get into the IM act: Netscape for years has included an AOL IM client with its browser. But for IM to work, you need an AOL screen name or entry into AOL's user database. And that is crux of the problem.
When it comes to instant messaging, AOL's IM is the industry standard. AOL owns the application, its database of screen names and passwords, and the programming interfaces to IM. All well and good, you say. They should protect their intellectual property.
However, this isn't 1989, or even 1995. This is the era of Open Systems. And AOL is doing everyone a disservice, including its members, by blocking out Microsoft. Funny, I seem to remember some testimony at the DOJ trial from AOL complaining about similar action when Microsoft blocked AOL from Windows desktops. Have Case & Co. such short memories? Or when the programming shoe is on the other foot it is okay to complain? I had thought that when AOL bought Netscape the open systems rubric of the latter would find its way to the Virginia headquarters of AOL. Apparently, this hasn't happened.
Why is AOL fighting so hard? Is it corporate ego? Is it because they truly believe that their property is valuable and don't want the Redmond Evil Empire to play in their protected sandlot? Or are they miffed that Microsoft just has better programmers and did a better job on their IM user interface? You pick: whatever the reason, the end result is that the public suffers.
(As a side note, their PR protests of how Microsoft requires people to reveal their AOL passwords are disingenuous: you need a password in order to access AOL IM anyway. While one could make a case that the password that Microsoft captures could be an issue for AOL users, I don't think it is much of a security risk. Once again, this is the AOL pot calling the Microsoft kettle black.)
AOL should license IM freely to all comers. It is in the company's best interest to stop this blocking nonsense, to encourage other companies to develop software to work with AOL IM clients, and also to encourage others to adopt their IM as the standard -- including the Internet working group currently debating this topic.
Actually, Microsoft isn't the first to intrude on AOL's IM- space Earlier this year Prodigy set up something similar to Microsoft's Messenger but was blocked by AOL. Sadly, no one cared about Prodigy access at the time. And also last week Yahoo released a beta of its Messenger software (which used to be called Yahoo Pager) that also had AOL access, but backed down when AOL blocked Yahoo users too.
Maybe the DOJ should sue AOL for anti-trust actions. (I am kidding, but there is an element of truth therein.)
While it has been fun to watch this battle royale between Microsoft and AOL, we don't need more than one IM standard at this point in time. Users certainly don't need to deal with the challenges of whether or not their software will work today because of corporate ego clashes either. Microsoft and Yahoo could add value to AOL IM and widen the IM world considerably. AOL should behave itself, publish its IM specifications freely and stop blocking access to its IM users.
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