Facebook opens chat, and AIM plugs in

Using Facebook Connect and an open standard for IM, the social network is letting others tap into its chat service. AOL is one of them.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Correction 1:05 p.m. PST: Boy, did I get it wrong.

Writing off available information this morning--the AIM beta download site and a few news reports--I assumed the Facebook-AOL interoperability was the result of a corporate partnership. Instead, it's because Facebook actually did open up its technology, embracing rather than neglecting the approach I called for. In this case at least, the bad instant messaging network habits from the past were not carried over.

I have to say I'm impressed with Facebook's move, and not because it makes the crow I'm eating any tastier. What Facebook did--using the open XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) standard for chat and Facebook Connect for authentication--is a good recipe for making Facebook IM useful from outside Facebook. Google uses XMPP for its chat service, too.

Facebook detailed its move at its official blog and its developer site. "By integrating Facebook Chat with your preferred instant messenger, you'll never miss a message when you have to navigate away from Facebook and you'll be in control of how and where you chat with your Facebook friends," said Facebook engineer David Reiss.

We've updated the story headline but are keeping my original post intact below for the record.

Facebook's and AOL's instant-messaging systems now can link together. It's a step forward--but one that also shows how backward Net communications are today.

"AIM has teamed up with Facebook, and now you can chat with your Facebook friends--right from AIM!" gushes the AIM beta download site. "After you sign into AIM, click the 'Facebook Connect' button at the top of your buddy list to set up Facebook chat. When you are done your Facebook friends will be added to your buddy list. You can now chat with your friends who are using the Facebook site!"

Maybe I should be happier about this than I am. I can't begrudge Facebook's effort to enrich its members communications' options through its 2008 launch of instant messaging, but I also can't help feeling this is a case of a new-era Internet company making the same missteps as its dot-com 1.0 predecessors.

AOL Instant Messenger and Facebook Chat now can connect.
AOL Instant Messenger and Facebook Chat now can connect. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Specifically, I hate how, unlike e-mail, instant messaging consists of separate islands of non-interoperable services. The fact that Facebook and AOL had to hammer out a partnership and that AIM had to release new software to take advantage of it reveals just how unpleasant the prevailing system is for users.

I use two primary instant messaging services today: Yahoo Messenger and AIM, both accessed through the multiprotocol Pidgin software rather than the two separate chat applications. I also use Twitter's direct-messaging ability through TweetDeck. On occasion, I also use Google's Gmail Chat, Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger, and Facebook Chat.

There are some partnerships already that tie these services together. If I run Yahoo Messenger, I can chat with Windows Live Messenger contacts. If I run Gmail Chat, I can chat with AIM contacts. And now if I run the new AIM beta, I'll get to chat with Facebook contacts. There was going to be a messaging partnership between Yahoo and Google, too, but apparently that fell apart along with the search-ad deal it accompanied.

So please forgive me if the AIM-Facebook deal reminds me of how unpleasant and complicated this all is rather than filling me with excitement that a barrier has been lowered.

Every service on the Net that's assembled a collection of users and got them to build links to their contacts wants to keep that precious social graph intact. I understand that--no company wants a corporate ally to suck the value out of that network.

But the more fragmented instant messaging remains, the more likely I am to stick with e-mail--the most reliable inbox of the dozen or so I have to grapple with today. That's because e-mail uses a single, neutral standard, not a hodgepodge of company-specific, proprietary technologies.

Google Buzz has some potential interest here--my Gmail address book has my social graph already built in, after all, and Google Buzz can draw in some information from other services. Until it can seamlessly connect both ways to my existing array of instant-messaging and social-networking contacts, though, Google Buzz will be yet another island of non-interoperability.

Efforts such as Mozilla Raindrop have some potential to put control back in the user's domain, but it will only succeed to the extent that all the communication conduits are open.

"In today's online environment, you can't be competitive without being open and allowing partners, developers, and consumers to leverage your technology," Ethan Beard, Facebook's director of platform marketing, told the San Jose Mercury News. Facebook's approach, though, apparently consists more of one-off deals with AOL than something more universally open such as the application programming interface Twitter offers.

The way I see Net communications right now, the industry remains as closed as it is open.