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Instant messaging's dead end

Industry veteran Lee Finck writes that while the battle over open standards remains inconclusive, instant messaging technology is fated to remain stuck in a time warp.

AOL Time Warner is quite the distracted behemoth today, with everyone from Ted Turner to the Securities and Exchange Commission hunting for executive scalps. So it is unsurprising that virtually nothing is going on in instant messaging, an area where the company has been completely on the defensive during all its years of undisputed leadership.
They look, feel and taste about the same as they did in the beginning.

The perpetual open-standards stalemate--marked by a self-sustaining whirlpool of repetitive press and rebuttal--has gone on so long now that the instant messaging category has become far less interesting than when it first burst on the scene a few years ago.

Yossi Vardi's ICQ hit the first and really only grand slam in instant messaging. The poster child for viral marketing, ICQ bagged 5 million users, the distribution channel being the users themselves. During that initial phase, it seemed clear that ICQ would continue to improve and become the de facto instant messaging standard.

Enter AOL with its wispy yet effective AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), spoon-fed to legions of indentured novice subscribers. AOL had the logical notion that it could control the category by snapping up the free-spirited scrappers at Mirabilis (the creator of ICQ), eventually consolidating the two largest instant messaging camps into an unbeatable controlling force.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and others unsuccessfully tried to interoperate with AIM. Several products and companies were hurt in the process, including Tribal Voice, Peoplelink, IChat Messenger, and even Yahoo, though its well-designed instant messaging product today enjoys a loyal user base.

AOL has since kept the ICQ world separate from AIM. I still can't figure out why they do this. Perhaps it's out of fear that ICQ's Birkenstock-shod crowd would bolt at the mere whiff of commercialization.

While this battling over interoperable messaging is being waged, instant messaging products have barely advanced. They look, feel and taste about the same as they did in the beginning. The user interfaces are frozen in time; they don't work well inside firewalls, and they don't integrate with other applications well.

As long as users are fenced in the so-called walled garden, AOL maintains control, a state of affairs that management finds to its liking.

Even now, few management or server-side tools have been added for address books, or to deal with the often intrusive nature of buddy lists and unwanted messages.

AOL Time Warner is (or perhaps was) a great media and marketing company. However, it remains a mediocre software company that has made minute improvements to its messaging software products. All the while, it has succeeded in keeping a proprietary lock on the world's biggest cadre of IM users. As long as users are fenced in the so-called walled garden, AOL maintains control, a state of affairs that management apparently finds to its liking.

AOL and its rivals might have also acted more like software companies and invested in product improvement and usability. AOL instead chose to thicken the barricades while its rivals tried fruitlessly to exchange messages with AOL/ICQ users.

Instant messaging is still a great communications tool with immediacy and a modicum of intimacy. But no one has challenged AOL with a great application, and that is a shame.

There is at least one challenger that has succeeded where many players have failed over the years. Trillian, from upstart Cerulean Studios , is a tight and tidy IM application that also is my personal favorite. I am able to integrate my contact lists from several services, change its look and feel through a useful "skins" feature, and avoid intrusive advertising messages popping up on my desktop.

It's a freeware application, installing with a request for a donation. A wise move on Cerulean's part, as it is the only way to capitalize on a messaging application today.

But if the category is going to fulfill its potential, AOL must lead with open, forward-looking software development instead of merely incarcerating its users and spouting empty commitments. Is that likely to happen? AOL knows that messaging is merely a feature of its service. Opening the door to other services is a threat to what is its crown jewel--the core AOL service user base.

If AOL is forced to actually compete for users in a compatible environment, who knows--the company might actually have to improve the product one day. But don't hold your breath waiting.