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Microsoft's next messaging move: publishing protocol

In a move reminiscent of its struggle with Netscape for browser dominance, Microsoft says it will publish the protocol for its MSN Messenger service.

Microsoft today launched its most powerful weapon yet in the messaging war with America Online.

In a move reminiscent of its struggle with Netscape Communications for browser dominance, Microsoft said it will publish the protocol for its MSN Messenger service.

The stakes are high in this fight--instant message Puppet masters: Who controls the  Net services, which allow users to send messages in real time to other people on the Internet, have become immensely popular over the last several months. AOL says its ICQ instant message service has 40 million registered users, and its AOL Instant Messenger service (AIM), developed in-house, boasts 28 million registered users.

The battle over these services raged last month when Microsoft launched its MSN Messenger service, which allowed users to communicate with users of AIM. AOL, which accused Microsoft of hacking into its systems to access its subscriber lists, blocked MSN Messenger users from communicating with its AIM users.

Publishing its messaging service code means Microsoft could rely on third parties to help bolster its position in the messaging wars. Microsoft also hopes to gain allies among Internet service providers and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a group that is partly responsible for setting up standards for how messaging software communicates.

Bloomberg today reported that three online companies, including Prodigy Communications, back Microsoft's messenger service. Another instant messaging company backing Microsoft is Tribal Voice, which today said its 5 million PowWow users will have access to MSN Messenger by the fourth quarter.

"Microsoft tends to do two things at once. Not only is the first part to work the standards issue, to try to make their own technology the accepted standard, but the second issue is opening up their protocol to gain eyeball shares," said Joe Ferlazzo, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

But AOL also has been busy recruiting allies. Earlier this month it enlisted ISPs MindSpring and EarthLink, which agreed to distribute a cobranded version of AIM to customers. And last month Apple said it would team with AOL to develop instant messaging products for Macintosh users.

Ferlazzo likened the fight to the portal and browser wars. "The reason [Netscape and Microsoft] gave away the browser was to gain eyeballs. This was not a revenue-generating opportunity for them," he said.

During the early days of the browser wars when Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator displayed Web pages differently, Microsoft learned that working with standards groups bolstered its position over competitors.

Microsoft and AOL appear to be deploying strategies reminiscent of the browser wars. Netscape used its overwhelming market share to determine how the code for Web pages should be written. Microsoft used a standards body and aggressive partnerships to set the pace of browser development. Microsoft's strategy paid off, and it took the lead in how browsers are developed.

AOL leveraged its overwhelming messenger market presence to block the MSN Messenger service from connecting with AIM. Now Microsoft is turning to a tried-and-true strategy: influencing standards and wooing partners.

The war's winner may come down to who partners best. If that's the case, Microsoft may have a worthy competitor in AOL, which built its service on partnerships with content providers.

But on the standards front, AOL is giving ground cautiously. An AOL spokesperson said this morning that the company is working with IETF to carve out an instant messaging standard. "We have been clear about our support for interoperability in instant messaging, and we believe the IETF is the way to get there," she said.

But she would not say whether AOL would allow MSN Messenger users to communicate with its messaging service if such a standard were developed.