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Trillian restores AOL IM connection


By tacy Cowley

(IDG) -- Boutique software developer Cerulean Studios restored the interoperability of its Trillian instant messaging application with America Online's AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) system late Thursday, the latest move in a now-familiar cat-and-mouse game that illustrates how far the industry is from the IM interoperability consumers crave.

Trillian is an IM front-end with no native user base but one killer feature: It promises to connect users to five popular messaging systems, including MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and AOL's AIM and ICQ. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of Initially released in July 2000 as an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) client and expanded five months later to connect diverse IM systems, Trillian operated without interference from AOL for more than a year.

In late January, AOL shut down Trillian's connection to AIM, kicking off an extended cycle of break-and-fix. Cerulean was able to circumvent most AOL blocks within a day -- until last Thursday, when AOL both cut off Trillian's access and sternly reprimanded its users. Attempts to connect to AIM via Trillian were met with a message informing users that they had been disconnected for attempting to access AOL's network with unauthorized software. The message directed users to AOL's Web site to download a "FREE, fully featured, and authorized client." INFOCENTER
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A week later, Trillian is once again connecting to AIM, but the issues raised by the industry's profusion of IM systems that don't allow their users to speak with those using other systems remains unsettled.

AIM is the industry's largest IM network, with a user base of more than 100 million users, but Yahoo! and Microsoft have also amassed millions of members for their IM applications -- and details about long-promised interoperability between their systems remain vague.

Yahoo! and Microsoft sparked a flurry of headlines last February when IMUnified, an interoperability initiative in which both participate, announced it had completed development of an interoperability protocol and was "very close to the next step." One year later, IMUnified's protocol remains publicly unreleased, and users of Yahoo! Messenger still can't trade text with those on Microsoft's system.

One analyst covering the instant messaging market said he doesn't expect IMUnified's protocol to be adopted.

"I don't think IMUnified will go anywhere," said Ferris Research analyst Michael Sampson. "My perspective is that IMUnified was formed almost exclusively as an attack on AOL, perhaps trying a judo strategy to pull AOL into the fold. That obviously didn't work."

AOL critics have dubbed its strategy "Fortress AIM": Block users from communicating with other IM systems, and make it difficult for them to migrate to rival applications. But all of the major IM systems are guilty of using those tactics, Sampson said.

"I think most consumer services are still of the opinion that by owning the customer they can derive greater value," he said.

AOL's instant messaging dominance -- in addition to its AIM's nine-figure user base, AOL's ICQ system claims 120 million users -- drew close scrutiny from the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) during its review of AOL's merger with Time Warner. One of its provisions in approving the merger was that AOL demonstrate IM interoperability before adding advanced features, such as streaming video, to its own systems. The FCC left AOL some wiggle room, however, allowing the company to avoid the interoperability requirement if it can show that industry circumstances have changed such that interoperability is no longer in the public interest. The FCC also didn't set a timeframe in which AOL would be forced to produce interoperability.

AOL has taken baby steps toward connecting with rival systems. It launched a technical test in August of interoperability between AIM and IBM's Lotus Sametime enterprise IM system. AOL is evaluating the results of that test and "considering the next steps," said AOL spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan. AOL has not decided on a timeframe for those next steps, she said.

An analyst interviewed at the time called the Sametime test a delaying tactic for AOL.

"The industry is not looking for interoperability between Lotus and AOL, but between AOL and other consumer IM products," said Meta Group Vice President Mike Gotta.

IM users' desire for simplified messaging was keenly expressed this week on Trillian's Web site community forum. There, users wrote of their dismay and frustration over the AOL block, and traded bits of code as they attempted to create a workaround.

"Since AOL has started doing this, I've stopped using AOL IM entirely and not looked back," said Austrian computer science student Gunther Schmidl, who has been using Trillian for six months. "This isn't the first time AOL has been annoying."

Several users said they've switched to back-up IM clients during the block or asked friends to contact them through other IM networks, including Microsoft's and Yahoo!'s. But for more casual Trillian users, the convenience of an all-in-one IM tool may not be worth the hassle of dealing with AIM outages.

"If I could be assured that AOL wouldn't block Trillian every other day, I would probably use it," said Steve Bernard, a customer service representative from Waterford, Michigan. Bernard downloaded Trillian and used it for several days, but switched back to AIM after the blockages began.

AOL's policy is to obstruct all third-party attempts to interoperate with its IM systems. "This is about a company that hacks into our system. There is no interoperability agreement between our companies, and to the extent that Trillian users are being told that there is, they are being misled," McKiernan said.

Still, AOL isn't always successful in its attempts to evade forced interoperability. Trillian's connection to AOL's ICQ system remained active during the week-long AIM outage. AOL fought a similar battle more than a year ago with New York-based Odigo, a small startup that persisted in thwarting AOL's attempts to shut down connections between its IM client and AOL's systems. After several months of cat-and-mouse, AOL appears to have quietly backed down: Odigo's Web site currently advertises that its client interoperates with AIM and ICQ.

Odigo's spokesman was traveling this week and could not be reached for comment. AOL's McKiernan said she had no comment on whether Odigo is successfully connecting to AOL's systems, or on Trillian's ability to access ICQ's network.

"Sometimes it turns into a cat-and-mouse situation," she acknowledged. "Often, there's a back-and-forth."

Yahoo! and Microsoft are also keeping a low profile on the interoperability issue. A Yahoo! representative could not be reached for several days, while a Microsoft representative would comment only by e-mail, via a spokeswoman.

"We believe that the ultimate benefit for consumers is a standard for instant messaging/interoperability among all IM products. MSN continues to work with the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and the rest of the industry to make that happen so that consumers can communicate openly and freely with friends and family no matter what instant messaging service they use," said MSN Lead Product Manager Sarah Lefko in a written statement.

Lefko said Microsoft remains a member of IMUnified, and directed questions about delays in the coalition's interoperability plans to Odigo, one of the group's founding members. She could not be contacted for follow-up questions.

With no signs of imminent interoperability, impatient consumers are increasingly turning to renegade solutions such as Odigo and Trillian. Trillian has been downloaded more than 2 million times, although its active user base is likely much smaller said co-creator Scott Werndorfer via e-mail.

The community forum on Trillian's Web site has only 13,000 registered members, and research firm Jupiter Media Metrix logged no reportable traffic in January -- which translates to less than 200,000 unique users -- both to Trillian's Web site and for the application.

Trillian is the sole product of Cerulean Studios, a two-person company created in 1998. The IM client, named after a character in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" science fiction saga, is freeware currently supported by customer donations.

While some vocal Trillian enthusiasts have called on the Web site's message boards for a grassroots crusade against AOL, the product's creators are trying to stay out of the fray, avoiding the media spotlight and answering questions only by e-mail.

Cerulean isn't trying to stir up controversy, and is "more than willing" to talk with AOL about interoperability terms, Werndorfer said.

But so long as the industry continues talking about IM interoperability without any discernible progress in making it a reality, programmers will continue taking action on their own.

Trillian's latest patch, restoring its users' connection to AIM, is available on its Web site, along with a note from the applications' authors:

"Going forward, Cerulean Studios is committed to maintaining interoperability across all major IM networks. We will continue to work hard and pursue the necessary avenues to keep this a reality.

Stacy Cowley is a New York-based correspondent for IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate.



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