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What's so exclusive about IM?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the latest flare-up between Yahoo and Trillian speaks to an outdated mind-set about the rules governing instant messaging.

Can't we all just get along? Apparently, not just yet. Yahoo this week blocked Cerulean Studios' Trillian software from communicating with its instant-messaging service. Yahoo defended the decision as a preemptive measure against spammers. But when you consider that there still exist ways to infiltrate messages into Yahoo's network--anyone with decent knowledge of protocols can develop a work-around--the fuller answer tells a different story.

Imagine a world in which individual phone services refused to let their customers talk with anyone outside the network. That pretty much describes the current IM landscape.

The spam issue Yahoo seized upon is a red herring.

The spam issue Yahoo seized upon is a red herring. Fact is this is just the latest example of a big instant-messaging provider seeking to wall off its client from outsiders--be they third-party integrators like Trillian or other IM rivals.

For instance, when Microsoft launched MSN Messenger in 1999, people could chat with America Online's instant-messenger users. That didn't last long. AOL, which promptly freaked out, erected a barrier that the two companies fought over for months. In the end, Microsoft relented, describing its decision to give up as being in the best interest of customer security.

How refreshing to know that big computer vendors are keen to put their customers' interests so front and center. But whatever the spin, there's no disguising the fact that we're bearing witness to a stark example of private corporate interests trumping the larger consumer interest in opening up the chat airwaves. Yahoo's not the only one deserving a public spanking. Microsoft has also shut out Trillian, saying the company would have to strike an access agreement if it wanted to gain access to MSN users. And AOL's no better.

If you're like me, you have friends and family who use a multiplicity of IM platforms. I use Yahoo Messenger because that's the IM environment we use, for the most part, at CNET News.com, which has a newsroom that spans several geographies and time zones. But I also use Trillian for the other features it offers in the way of user convenience. The software pulls in multiple IM clients under a single interface, and that lets me chat with everyone from my nephew David in New York to a software executive I know in Tel Aviv. So far, that's something you can't get with Yahoo, Microsoft or AOL--in large part because they are so hidebound about exercising control.

I suppose the folks who run Trillian can be accused of bad manners.
Nobody's yet figured out how to make a business of instant messaging, but AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo must know where all this is headed. In the future, these companies are going to become more like phone companies and will want to bundle "value added" communications services with Internet access features. All it takes is a big broadband pipe and agreement on the protocols of communications.

I suppose that the folks who run Trillian can be accused of bad manners. They made a mistake by not first securing prior arrangements with the Big Three before launching their service. Whether Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL would have ever given their consent is open to question, but the way in which the governing IM powers have (mis)handled the Trillian controversy has only alienated users.

Years ago, the technology world came up with an ungainly term that really says it all: "interoperability." Instant messaging has become hugely popular in the last five years. Now it's a question of breaking down old barriers. The Big Three each have their particular agendas, but helping to smooth things for the rest of us is surely in their enlightened self-interest.