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Finance firms push messaging standards

Seven top brokerage firms form a coalition to promote the adoption of standards in the fragmented instant messenger industry.

Seven top brokerage firms on Wednesday formally announced a coalition to promote the adoption of standards in the fragmented instant messenger industry.

As previously reported, financial services firms, including Deutsche Bank and J.P. Morgan Chase, this summer formed the Financial Services Instant Messaging Association (FIMA), formerly known as the Instant Messaging Standards Board (IMSB). The committee, which also includes representatives from Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and UBS Warburg, publicly touted its lofty goal of fostering technical harmony among IM providers Yahoo, AOL, MSN and others.

For the Wall Street firms, IM is vital for internal and client communications; a lack of IM interoperability has been a source of increasing frustration.

"FIMA will assist organizations within the financial industry with...identifying IM solutions that meet interoperability and security requirements, along with providing a platform for sharing information and experiences amongst member firms," the committee said in a statement.

Formed in July to act as ambassador to IM providers, FIMA does not intend to create its own standards. Rather, it hopes to nudge IM providers to adopt standards from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF.)

Representatives of AOL and MSN could not immediately be reached for comment.

The financial institutions are trying to wield their influence over an industry that's long been obstinate when it comes to open standards. The leading public IM networks--America Online's Instant Messenger and ICQ, Yahoo's Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger--have millions of users, and their operators have been loath to open the networks to competitors. This means that a subscriber of Yahoo's IM service can't chat directly with someone on an AOL Buddy List, although some gateways operated by third-parties such as Trillian offer workarounds to bridge the gap.

Wall Street may prove a powerful pulpit to press for standards, offering IM providers a potentially lucrative market for the wildly popular technology.

In late August, the committee, then with only six members, met privately with AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, IBM and other corporate instant messaging providers on a preliminary fact-finding mission.

The call for interoperability comes as corporations are beginning to look more seriously at IM as a communications tool within the office--a trend that has IM providers salivating at the thought of turning what has been mostly a free service into a paid product. For the month of July, 12.7 million office workers were using instant messaging services, including those from AOL, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ and Trillian, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Much of this office IM use is unofficial, however, and has sparked some companies to ban the technology altogether. Others are seeking alternatives to the popular free services that guarantee security and archiving of messages, among other things.