Standoff persists in instant messaging duel
July 28, 1999
By Robin Lloyd
(CNN) -- A computer code war that broke out when Microsoft released an instant messaging service that links to America Online's similar, popular service continued Wednesday with no end in sight.
Depending on the time of day, an MSN Messenger instant message sender may or may not be able to type a short message to a friend or colleague using AOL's Instant Messenger, click on the "send" button and have the message appear a second later on the recipient's screen.
MSN Messenger was launched last week to be interoperable with AOL's instant message service, called AIM. Initially, AOL responded by inserting code into its operations to block MSN entry but Microsoft posted a version of its software to circumvent the block within a day.
That scenario has repeated itself four times since Friday and both companies say they refuse to relent.
"We're nowhere different than we were Friday," said AOL spokeswoman Ann Brackbill. AOL will continue to assign coders to work to prevent MSN instant messages from reaching AIM subscribers, she said.
"It is because we remain committed to our users," Brackbill said. "Another company cannot just essentially hack into our system."
Deanna Sanford, lead product manager for Microsoft's messenger service, took the same stance.
"At this point we're still committed to providing that interoperability for consumers," she said. Microsoft has no plan to limit its efforts to work around blocks that AOL may put up, she said.
Like AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger is free, downloadable software.
The Microsoft product is designed to allow its users to tap into the AOL product's client base. AIM, a product with 40 million users and clearly dominant in the field, cannot be used to contact users of other instant messaging services, such as those offered by Yahoo! and Prodigy, let alone Microsoft's service.
In recent days, Yahoo! has introduced Yahoo! Messenger in beta version, and Prodigy has posted a new versions of its instant messaging software. Both are also designed to link with the AOL service. AOL put up code blocks to those products as well.
A possible olive branch
In an attempt to put an end to conflict, which has an air of playground antics, AOL sent a letter Friday to Microsoft demanding an end to the company's entry into the AIM system and asking them to talk about coordinating efforts, according to AOL spokeswoman Brackbill.
Five days later, Microsoft responded without addressing the invitation to coordinate, saying it had done nothing wrong. Instead, the letter dealt with privacy concerns AOL had raised. AOL complains that its users must reveal their passwords to receive messages from those on the MSN message system -- a privacy violation.
Microsoft says the password, once requested, is simply stored on the AIM client's computer or server and used internally to AOL. There is no privacy concern. AOL still objects.
"For us that's irrelevant," Brackbill said. "For us, the user experience is everything."
Agreement on the interoperability concept
Microsoft and AOL agree that the goal is interoperable instant messaging services, but they disagree about how to go about it.
AOL has business agreements for instant messaging with Lotus and IBM that allow interoperability with the AOL messaging service and wants to pursue that avenue with Microsoft, Brackbill said.
AOL contacted Microsoft "months ago" to work on an agreement and believes that eventually the interoperability issue will be worked out, Brackbill said. "Ultimately, we absolutely believe that this is going to be a way to do it, that (instant-messaging people on different systems) is just as easy as e-mail and talking on the telephone."
In contrast, Microsoft wants open standards for message transmission to be adopted so all instant messengers can communicate with one another. That means nobody pays any licensing fees.
Microsoft is heading up an effort for an open standard through an industry consortium it initiated. AOL participates in the consortium, but Microsoft says that AOL has not played an active part.
Nonetheless, the MSN Messenger service is designed to link only to AIM, not to Yahoo! or Prodigy.
AOL objects to Microsoft setting the standard.
"Here you have a company that's just come out and now they're making it sound like we're going to force you accept whatever standard we put up," Brackbill said. "The only thing that's gonna win is what's best."
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