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Commentary: IM interoperability remains in AOL's hands

America Online is the "800-pound gorilla" of instant messaging, and interoperability could arrive tomorrow if the Internet giant wants it.

    By Lou Latham, Gartner Analyst

    America Online is the "800-pound gorilla" of instant messaging, and interoperability could arrive tomorrow if AOL wanted it.

    Without AOL's participation, "interoperability"

    See news story:
    New MSN Messenger fuels rivalry against AOL
    will have a small impact: AOL's three services--AOL, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ--account for a huge preponderance of the market, with more than 50 million consumers. An aggregation of three small fractions of the market will make little difference.

    AOL shows little interest in permitting interoperability, even though the service is free. The Federal Communications Commission has said it will require AOL to make its IM services interoperable before the company can offer enhanced services. But the decree has little force, since neither the company nor the agency have specified what "enhanced" IM features are--presumably integrated voice or video would qualify--nor when they might appear and trigger the requirement. Thus, AOL can remain uncooperative indefinitely.

    Nevertheless, the demand for IM is growing rapidly, and with it the demand for interoperability. AOL's inaction on the interoperability front has been a significant annoyance for consumers. Most IM users would probably not mind having multiple services installed if they could access them all with a single client, and some vendors are addressing this., for instance, makes an IM client that can access ICQ if the consumer has an ICQ account, which never needs to run but merely to be installed. At this point, since the number of subscribers is small, such a product is really just an alternate ICQ client if used in this way. In principle, however, it could erode AOL's isolation as long as it continues to offer its services at no cost.

    Enterprise users require interoperability less than some other capabilities such as better security, contact logging, archiving of message content, and integration with e-mail. Many workers use AIM for workgroup collaboration without realizing that all their messages go outside their firewall and pass through an AOL server, over which they have no control.

    Several large and small vendors, including Lotus Development, Bantu and, have begun to offer in-house IM servers that allow enterprises to manage their IM from end to end and add high-level functions. One example is iPlanet, a joint venture between Sun Microsystems and AOL's Netscape Communications. Ironically, iPlanet has not announced when it plans to offer interoperability even with its own sister AOL offerings.

    As enterprise use of IM grows--particularly via browsers for applications such as help desks and customer service--it has begun to develop its own momentum. If the major consumer IM vendors, especially AOL, want it to happen, an industrywide standard can be adopted. If not, IM will become a two-tier industry, with enterprise products going their own way.

    (For related commentary on instant messaging for enterprises, see registration required.)

    Entire contents, Copyright © 2001 Gartner Group, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.