The rise of these alternatives comes as instant messaging solidifies its position as one of the hottest applications on the Internet, letting Web surfers communicate in real time and giving businesses new ways to communicate with their customers.
Jabber.org, a grassroots effort to craft an instant messaging service under the open-source software development model, got a boost this week with Corel's decision to implement Jabber's software in Corel's Linux desktop operating system and applications.
Corel will add the instant messaging client in a partnership with Webb Interactive Services, which has taken a keen interest in Jabber's project to produce an instant messaging client based on Extensible Markup Language (XML).
XML defines a tagging structure for the creation of industry- or task-specific languages. One example is MathML, for creating Web pages with mathematical content. XML also lets database programs exchange data without knowing each other's proprietary conventions.
Webb was so interested in the work Jabber was doing that it decided to put Jabber's founder, Jeremie Miller, on its payroll as a senior developer. The firm also has three of its own developers working full time on the open-source project.
Under the open-source software development model, an organization, sometimes funded by a company interested in its project, manages the contributions of volunteer and corporate-sponsored developers. The contributions and working versions of the product typically are published for free use under an open-source license.
Webb was ready to start work on its own XML-based instant messaging software but abandoned that effort when it discovered Jabber.
"Instead of building our own we decided to adopt the open-souce standard of Jabber, and we hired its founder," said Webb president Perry Evans. "We benefit if Jabber succeeds."
XML will let Jabber expand the capabilities of the instant messaging client, Evans said, letting firms integrate the software with other business applications. In one example, an XML-based instant messaging system could automatically query customers seeking help with products, analyze product and configuration information, and automatically steer them to the appropriate message board or help page.
"Instead of treating a message as a block of text, with XML you can allow that dialogue to add context," Evans said. "XML gives us a way to build applications on top of instant messaging, and instant messaging is an excellent platform for a lot of new interactive applications."
Jabber has long promised an instant messaging system compatible with the major offerings from AOL and others. AOL has said it has 40 million registrations for its home-grown AIM instant messaging system and 35 million registrations for its ICQ system, which it acquired last year.
Evans said Jabber is working toward interoperability with its participation in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international standards group, to craft a standard for instant messaging that would let various systems communicate with each other.
But that may take a while. The IETF's standard is said to be about five months away from a first draft. AOL, Microsoft, and others have said they plan to abide by that standard once it is hammered out.
In addition to its focus on XML, Jabber was attractive to Webb for its open-source model, Evans said.
"Instant messaging is a tip-of-the-iceberg piece of technology," Evans said. "Turning it loose to the developer community will result in far more interesting permutations and applications than would a tightly controlled development environment. The ability of that group to build on innoavation on innovation on innovation is far stronger than anything a single company could do."
Several hundred developers have signed up to work on Jabber, according to Evans.
In another development for instant messaging alternatives, IntraActive tomorrow will launch its Banter MultiNetwork Instant Messenger. Written in Java, Sun Microsystems' cross-platform programming language, the product will run on the Windows, Macintosh, Unix, and Linux platforms.
IntraActive also claims it will be interoperable with the major instant messaging systems and said it is "working on partnering with the other instant messaging players in the marketplace," including AOL.
"We are working on forming a partnership with them," an IntraActive representative said. "There's a likely chance that they'll block us. We're hoping that they won't. But everyone is coming to the conclusion that there will be an open standard."
Meanwhile, Banter launches tomorrow, promising to interoperate with AIM and ICQ. Similar moves from Microsoft and others have resulted in instant slammed doors from AOL in the past.
AOL declined to comment on the Corel or IntraActive instant messaging systems.
Microsoft, interested in chipping away at AOL's monolithic market share, applauded both entries to the market.
"Microsoft is committed to providing the interoperability that users are asking for through an open standards-based approach, so that in the same way users can use their telephone with any other user or their email program, they can use their instant messaging software," a Microsoft representative said. "Interoperability between MSN Messenger and these two new IM clients will benefit all users."
Banter will offer support for six languages: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The software's interface will be written in the various languages, and the software will support accents and other diacritical marks.
Another instant messaging system that promises to interact with AOL's technology and other software is Software Fusion's Universal Messenger, now under development and available in a trial version.