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Microsoft opens instant-messaging for all comers

Any programmer now can build software to tap into Windows Live Messenger's network. Perhaps in time IM will become less fragmented and more useful.

XMPP logo

In a move that would have been shocking a decade ago, Microsoft has made it possible for others' instant-messaging software to tap into its Windows Live Messenger.

Instant-messaging networks--the big ones are run by Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL--once were well-defended strongholds, and developers of third-party programs like Trillian had to work hard to reverse-engineer their inner workings. But whatever residual excitement IM possessed has faded as new communication methods such as Facebook and Twitter have seized the spotlight.

I'm inclined to blame the companies involved. Had they banded together on a standard, IM could have become a staple of real-time communications over the net as important as e-mail is for communications that people access when it's convenient.

Instead, we have a tower of babel. There are incomplete alliances--one-off deals that have let Yahoo Messenger users reach Windows Live Messenger users, Gmail Chat users reach AOL Instant Messenger users. There are third-party tools such as Apple iChat, Pidgin, Adium, Trillian, and Meebo, but they rarely support all the features such as chat rooms and videoconferencing. And worst of all, there are new instant-messenger networks sprouting up such as Twitter direct messages and Facebook Messenger.

There have been encouraging moments. In 2008, Yahoo raised hopes of instant-messaging alliances cemented through a technology called XMPP, or Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. Yahoo and Google nearly joined IM forces in 2008, but the partnership fell apart with the demise of a larger search-ad deal they companies hoped to arrange. AOL opened its technology up through a program called OpenAIM, but changed its mind. Instead, the company is "shifting our focus to select partnership opportunities."

Now Microsoft is taking a significant step that lowers at least its barriers by letting others tap into its network. It's using XMPP (the protocol behind Gmail Chat, by the way) and OAuth for authentication.

"With the release of the XMPP interface for Messenger, any XMPP-based chat client that can also support OAuth 2.0 for authentication will be able to connect to Windows Live Messenger to enable people to see which of their friends are online and chat with them in real time," said Dare Obasanjo, lead program manager for Microsoft's Live Connect Platform, in a blog post yesterday. "This means that anyone can build innovative messaging clients--either stand-alone or built into their devices--that include access to Messenger's 300 million active users."

Kudos to Microsoft for taking the step. If enough follow, we might yet have a unified IM technology. Then, perhaps, that could become a foundation for higher-level services. IM may have lost its luster, but it still has the potential to be important.