Far and away the champion of the instant messaging market with its own AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software and ICQ system, AOL has spent much of the past year fending off challengers--including Microsoft, Yahoo and others--trying to tap into its instant messaging subscriber rosters, or "buddy lists."
AOL's efforts have so far proved successful, causing no less a rival than Microsoft to wave the white flag in the instant messaging interoperability war.
Instant messaging products compete because people cannot send messages from one service to another. For example, AIM users cannot send instant messages to Microsoft's MSN Messenger users.
But now efforts to provide widespread access to AIM and ICQ subscribers from an outside instant messaging system could be under way under AOL's own roof with the hiring of an engineer collaborating on one such project.
AOL-owned Netscape Communications has hired an engineer, Robert Ginda, who was expected to collaborate on another organization's software that will let people exchange instant messages with potentially any chat system on the Net, including AOL's.
AOL confirmed that Ginda is on Netscape's payroll but declined to comment further. Ginda did not return calls placed to his office at Netscape.
Ginda has ties to a start-up called Jabber.org, an open-source effort devoted to developing a universal instant messaging system. Jabber is included in Corel's Linux products and is funded by Corel's partner, Webb Interactive Services.
Jabber tackles the tricky limitations of trying to get instant messaging services to talk to one another.
Every instant messaging system operates within its own set of addresses. In other words, an instant message sent to "johndoe" from one AIM user will go to "johndoe" within AIM's set of addresses, rather than to the "johndoe" registered with Microsoft's MSN Messenger.
Jabber, however, adds a suffix to each address after the "@" sign, just as the regular email addressing system does. So a Jabber server will read addresses such as "johndoe@AIM" and "johndoe@MSN" and will know where to deliver them.
It is through Ginda's relationship with Jabber that AOL may find itself in its next instant messaging conundrum.
Mozilla is the group charged with coordinating the open-source development of Communicator, which AOL acquired along with Netscape Communications. Through Netscape, AOL funds Mozilla and releases a Netscape-branded browser based on its work.
As a result, AOL indirectly funds the development of ChatZilla--software that competes with AIM and ICQ.
The spectacle of AOL's helping support Ginda's development of a competitor to its own instant messaging systems followed an embarrassing April 1999 episode in which Netscape posted a proposal for a cross-system Mozilla chat project. Netscape yanked the proposal the same week.
AOL is not supposed to exert control over the activities of Mozilla developers unless they are on the AOL staff. But Ginda--originator of ChatZilla--is on Netscape's payroll. And he will be collaborating with Jabber.org on the ChatZilla and Jabber software, according to Jabber.
"We're going to be taking time to integrate Jabber functionality with Mozilla," said Jabber founder and Webb Interactive employee Jeremie Miller. "We will be contributing to Mozilla. Next month we really start to get into that."
Miller pointed out that ChatZilla is specifically an Internet Relay Chat (IRC)-based system, while Jabber is a cross-system chat platform. "But we'll be sharing a lot of code," he said. IRC is an instant messaging system that is unaffiliated with any single company.
Miller acknowledges that AOL has squashed previous attempts by third parties to communicate with its instant messaging buddy lists and may do the same to Jabber.
But he said it may prove more difficult to squelch a diffuse army of independent Jabber servers than it was with the solitary attempts waged by Microsoft and others.
"Anyone can go out and install our servers and gateways to AIM," Miller said. "That means AOL is going to need to identify each new server and block it. If you have a few thousand people using a gateway to talk to AOL, they'll be able to notice and filter it out. But if you set up Jabber at home and have one or two people running off it, I don't know what they'll be able to do about that."
AOL's jealous protection of its buddy lists has roused complaints to the Federal Communications Commission by competitors, led by CMGI's iCast and Tribal Voice. These companies maintain that AOL's behavior should be held against it in evaluating its proposed merger with Time Warner.
Miller acknowledged the political significance of his group's technology but said he hoped to minimize confrontation with AOL.
"I'm going to try to focus on the fact that Jabber enables new functionality within Mozilla--such as server-side bookmarks that you could store on a Jabber server, or collaborative browsing--and not on the fact that we're building Jabber within Mozilla with compatibility with AIM and ICQ," Miller said. "I'm going to try to avoid the politics involved with that. Mozilla is a separate entity within AOL."
AOL has maintained that it wants interoperability, though critics say the company would like to stave it off as long as possible to maximize its return on its current advantage. AOL has pointed to an effort within the International Engineering Task Force to craft an industry standard for instant messaging. That standard, the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP), is said to be as many as six months away from its first draft.