Instant message standards group toils on
By Robin Lloyd
(CNN) -- As Microsoft duels AOL for the instant messaging crown, the pressure is rising on the 20 or so active members of a nine-month-old group working on a common language for what may be the most American of all communications technologies.
The standards group is trying to come up with a protocol for all instant message software developers to use to indicate when users are online and to facilitate the sending and receiving of instant messages between them, regardless of the platform or servers they are on.
Nearly two weeks ago, Microsoft posted free software that gave users "back door" access to AOL's instant messaging service and its 80 million users. AOL called foul and the two companies have trading punches, with AOL putting up code walls and MSN Messenger taking down barriers to that interoperability ever since.
While the working group, part of the Internet Engineering Task Force, cannot force Microsoft or AOL to rely on its recommendations, it can help other groups to pool their efforts so their users could contact one another easily -- forcing AOL's hand or leaving it out in the cold.
The working group's co-chairs, Vijay Saraswat of AT&T and Dave Marvit of Fujitsu, are huge enthusiasts of instant messaging's potential for the future of communications and are keenly aware of business battle at hand.
Nonetheless, the group's members cannot work any harder than they already have been, Marvit said.
"Regardless of what business events took place in the world outside the IETF, the working group could not and would not go any faster. It's going full tilt," said Marvit of Fujitsu Labs in Santa Clara.
The first draft of the protocol should be ready by the end of 1999, Saraswat said. Although the draft must go through a review process before it becomes official, it effectively will become the policy, he said. Saraswat works at AT&T Shannon Laboratories in Florham Park, New Jersey.
With more instant messages delivered daily than mail by the U.S. Postal Service, the area is hot and considered a huge growth market.
The working group has met three times in person, starting in Orlando last December, then in Minneapolis and then in Oslo, Norway two weeks ago. The next meeting is set for November in Washington, D.C.
Microsoft has accused AOL of skipping the meetings. AOL did send "observers" to the Orlando meeting, Saraswat says, but they refused to identify themselves as affiliated with AOL. Later, they sent e-mail in which they identified themselves. "They were sort of there and not," Saraswat says.
But the real work occurs not in person, but on the Internet, as you might imagine. The group's members exchange ideas and proposals to a listserv e-mail service.
In the past week, Barry Schuler, president of AOL's Interactive Services Group, has said AOL will select a technical staffer to get involved in the working group on the mailing list, Saraswat says.
"We're very excited about that," Saraswat said.
Still, that is no guarantee that AOL will sign on to the protocol when it is completed in the near future.
Down the line, cooperation between AOL, Microsoft and all the rest is likely, Marvit said. "All these guys are going to adopt an open standard. It's all going to be shared. The market forces are such that everyone wants interoperability standards," he said.
Saraswat is more circumspect, saying it's a desirable outcome but uncertain.
"There are a lot of competing commercial interests at work as well," he said.
Industry watcher Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says the battle for instant messaging services now is AOL's to lose.
AOL has spent big bucks to dominate the market, even paying $400 million recently to buy the pioneer in instant messaging, Mirabilis ICQ.
"I think that to a large extent the reality of instant messaging is AOL and ICQ," Brown says.
The IETF group's work is moot unless AOL follows through on its promise to participate in the working group, Brown says.
"If AOL isn't at the table and an active participant in a bunch of people making standards -- that in many ways don't matter," Brown says.
The fair solution would be for interoperability without breaking into the competition's servers and systems, Brown says. That contrasts with what MSN Messenger effectively does, a move that AOL has called "akin to hacking."
Instead, each software company would keep its clients, while facilitating contact with friends and colleagues on competitors systems. "AOL should allow MSN Messenger clients to see and send messages to AOL buddies," he said.
AOL is comfortable with that approach, according to AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. As is Microsoft, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman.
As it is, Brown says he runs five instant messaging clients on his machine to keep up with his colleagues -- those offered by AOL, Microsoft, ICQ, Yahoo! and Lotus.
"When someone sends me a message, I have five identities and five memberships. I would like to have one membership but see buddies in all of my systems," Brown says.
In a move that some call ironic given its attempt to create an Internet browser hegemony, Microsoft has called for a totally open system which takes away the value of having an instant messaging service -- the little 6-inch by 2-inch square on one's monitor with the service's logo on the top.
"Microsoft wants to own the real estate even of the AOL members," Brown said. "That I think is the sticking point here.
Either way, Saraswat and Marvit are optimistic about the potential of their working group, whose participants include Lotus, Activerse, Tribal Voice and InfoSeek.
The IM market will grow simply as more and more people adopt it. But the technology also could be used to send other "live" information -- personal medical information, breaking stock news, readiness to receive a video conferencing package, the current stock in the break room's soda machine or the need for a Swahili translator.
"We run into science fiction pretty quickly," Saraswat says. "Those guys get there before we do and then we have to go do it."
Instant messaging's appeal may be the highest in the United States, however, and that could put a ceiling on its growth.
"Instant messaging fulfills two human needs -- one is a fundamental human need and the other is more an American need," Saraswat said.
"The first need is to communicate," he said. "The second, Americans need to do it immediately, right away."
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