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Commentary: Instant messaging best when companies agree

Instant messaging is not simply the right of free speech. Although there are technical issues, the greater issues are security, privacy, capacity and, ultimately, who pays for the service.

    By Joyce Graff, Gartner Analyst

    Instant messaging is not simply the right of free speech. Although there are technical issues, the greater issues are security, privacy, capacity and, ultimately, who pays for the service.

    For the America Online community, a network of databases contains the registered usernames of AOL members and the profile information they may have recorded. Although people can ask that such information not be published, once it's there it's open to use by AOL and potentially by others.

    See news story:
    AOL releases its version of IM standards

    AOL owns AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ. AIM and AOL work together freely, and the online giant is satisfied that AIM's use of the database is appropriate. In the corporate world, IBM-Lotus Development's SameTime also has a deal to work with AOL.

    The wars over interconnection with AOL are variously characterized, depending on whose glasses you are wearing.

    Opponents of the online service characterize it as an evil empire, unwilling to let "the people" into its bastions for totalitarian reasons. But AOL's ICQ is the most open IM protocol. How can AOL be at both ends of the spectrum at the same time?

    Internet enthusiasts sneer at the proprietary protocol used by AOL and its "unwillingness" to participate in standards. But all the IM protocols are essentially proprietary with more or less willingness to publish the protocol documents. That's not a sin; it's an artifact. The industry is at a point where it must agree on the single standard protocol for the future.

    AOL characterizes its resistance to openness as an effort to protect children from potential danger. There is some truth to this. Certainly people will not participate in a service unless they can exert some control over their identities and visibility.

    When Microsoft Network originally connected to AIM, AOL took exception, primarily because MSN came in beneath the online giant's advertising so AOL did not get credit for the extra viewers. AOL never complains about interconnection to ICQ, which has no advertising.

    But of the issues that exist, at the top is who will own, operate, manage and increase capacity for the directories and application servers that underlie instant messaging. Without funding and central management, the service will fail.

    Instead of throwing rocks at one another, the various contingents need to agree on an IM protocol as well as issues related to directory access, management and name space.

    People certainly want IM. Experience in Japan is that the service has grown tenfold in one year, especially among teens. A sharply rising number of businesses are envisioning instant-gratification applications that might build on IM capabilities. With Internet data access in our pockets, the prospects for IM--complementing telephone and email--are endless.

    As the industry has seen repeatedly in the past, communications services don't begin to grow until they reach a critical mass of participants. The more interesting people there are to talk with, the more likely people are to use the service. Advertising revenue can be had on both ends of the communication--not just one. A common protocol will serve to expand the entire community, which can only be good for all participants.

    (For related commentary on instant messaging and business, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

    Entire contents, Copyright © 2000 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.