Industry giants, including America Online, Microsoft, AT&T and Cisco, have been involved in contentious debates about establishing an instant messaging standard with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The proposals adopted this week in Pittsburgh at the IETF's annual meeting mark a significant step toward creating a technology framework that will allow competing instant messaging (IM) systems to work together.
AOL, which controls the two largest IM services, presented the IETF with guidelines for interoperability in June. That submission was excluded from the official proposals because AOL did not present any suggestions for new protocols. Instead, AOL's proposal merely outlined how rival services can interconnect with its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ services.
An AOL spokeswoman noted that the adopted proposals do not exclude the company from the ongoing standards discussions, where it remains a significant player.
"There are elements of our proposals in each of three directions that IETF has chosen," AOL spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan said. "We look forward to working with the IETF."
Sources who attended the meeting said the proposals selected include one based on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), one on Blocks Extensible Exchange Protocol (BEEP), and one on Transmission Control Protocol (TCP).
Developers from Microsoft, Cisco and Dynamicsoft were listed as co-authors of the SIP protocol, according to the proposal.
During the meeting, the IETF chairs selected nine volunteers to create a subgroup that will determine by Aug. 21 how the proposals can work together, according to developers who attended the meeting. Expectations of how the proposals can work together or whether one technology will be used remain up in the air, one developer said.
"It's an important step," said one developer who attended. It "allows the working group to focus on the proposals' similarities."
The drive to create a universal framework for instant messaging has been contentious. Instant messaging is a technology that lets people send text to one other in real time over the Internet. Proponents of the technology compare it to the telephone system in its communication power.
But unlike they do with the telephone, customers of some competing instant messaging services cannot talk to one other. To address that, the industry and the IETF are trying to develop a common technology backbone to allow messaging services to interoperate.
AOL has garnered considerable criticism from rivals and government officials over its policies. The company's AIM and ICQ lead the marketplace by leaps and bounds with about 131 million registered members. Competitors, including Microsoft, CMGI-owned Tribal Voice and iCast, and Prodigy Communications, have attempted to let their instant messaging users communicate with AIM.
AOL has repeatedly blocked its competitors' attempts, criticizing the moves as "hacks" into its system. Meanwhile, the company has spoken out vociferously that developing interoperability must require strict standards for security and privacy.
Last week, Barry Schuler, AOL's president of interactive services, said the company is building technology to allow its instant messaging servers to work with outside servers. He said it would take about a year to build the technology and security to protect its IM users.
However, many of its competitors criticize AOL's security and privacy argument as a smoke screen to delay AIM's interoperability.