AOL blocks another instant messaging rival

The online giant blocks instant messaging start-up Odigo from communicating with users of its AOL instant messenger service.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
America Online has fired another shot in its ongoing battle against companies trying to tap into its coveted instant messaging network.

The online giant late Saturday night blocked instant messaging start-up Odigo from communicating with users of its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service. The move occurred 10 days after Odigo began allowing its customers to communicate with AIM users. Odigo remains interoperable with ICQ, AOL's second instant messaging community.

AOL's decision to block Odigo is not surprising. It has on numerous occasions shut out rival instant messaging services from accessing its list of messaging users, claiming these actions threaten the security and privacy of its customers.

But the companies that have challenged the online giant by tapping into AOL say the company should open its network of 91 million "Buddy List" screen names to outside technologies.

Since making its service interoperable with AIM, Odigo has added 100,000 customers to reach a total of more than 700,000 users, according to Avner Ronen, an Odigo co-founder. Ronen added that AOL did not give any warning or reason for its blockade, and that the companies have not communicated since Odigo decided to make its technology interoperable with AIM.

"There has been no communication between us and AOL," Ronen said. "We've tried contacting them in various ways but without success."

AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose confirmed the company has blocked Odigo, saying that Odigo's move undermined the privacy and security of AIM users.

"We did that, as we have in the past with companies who have sought unauthorized access to our servers, in an effort to protect the privacy and security of our members," Primrose said.

The issue of instant messaging has turned incendiary in the past year. Proponents of the technology predict instant messaging will become as popular as the telephone because of its convenience and its ability to let people communicate in real time.

Unlike the telephone, instant messaging does not operate on a standard network infrastructure. Instead, a scattered landscape of small instant messaging systems, overshadowed by AOL's enormous lead, rely on the Internet to pass messages.

Puppet masters: Who controls the Net AOL built AIM from the ground up. The company developed the software and built a buddy list network through its own means. AOL also owns ICQ, the second-largest instant messaging network, which it acquired two years ago from Israeli firm Mirabilis.

Efforts to force open AIM have led to outright warfare. During the past year, rivals such as Microsoft, AT&T and CMGI's Tribal Voice have attempted to allow interoperability between their instant messaging services and AIM. AOL responded to each of these moves with blockades, which sometimes led to a game of cat-and-mouse with companies such as Microsoft and CMGI.

Recently, the battle has spilled into the laps of federal regulators. Just last week, a coalition of rivals signed a letter to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission asking regulators to consider the instant messaging debate when examining AOL's proposed acquisition of Time Warner.

AOL has said it supports You've got Time Warner the widespread adoption of an instant messaging standard throughout the industry. But it has criticized standards efforts by companies as being too lax on security and privacy and has said it will not accept any proposals that undermine these principles.

"We are completely supportive of industry standards," Primrose said. "But we are committed that our members' security and privacy is protected in the process."

Meanwhile, AOL has licensed versions of AIM to outside providers including IBM, Novell, Lycos, EarthLink, Apple Computer and Juno Online Services. These partners can use AIM technology to create their own brands.

As for Odigo, the company is figuring out what to do next. In the meantime, it plans to discuss other ways for its service to communicate with other non-AOL instant messengers. The company is in discussions with Yahoo, Microsoft and CMGI, among others, to develop their own network of interoperable instant messengers.

"We're speaking with others in the space to form an alliance to allow interoperability between those instant messaging communities that are not AOL," Odigo's Ronen said.

As previously reported, both Yahoo and Microsoft are looking for ways to develop coalitions among non-AOL instant messaging technologies so they can communicate with one another.