AOL enlists Apple in messaging battle

While a battle continues to rage between AOL and Microsoft, AOL says it is teaming with Apple Computer to develop new instant messaging products.

3 min read
America Online is recruiting some powerful friends in the instant messaging war with Microsoft.

While a battle continues to rage between AOL and Microsoft, AOL today said it is teaming with Apple Computer to develop instant messaging products that will allow "seamless" communication between Mac users and the AOL Instant Messaging service.

AOL already offers the latest version of its Instant Messenger software on both Windows and the Macintosh. The agreement today is aimed at development of future products.

Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs said in a statement that the two companies are working to create instant messaging products that will "further enhance the Internet experience for Macintosh customers."

An Apple representative said no further details on the exact nature of those future products would be disclosed at this time. AOL representatives were unavailable for comment.

The agreement comes exactly a week after Microsoft fired the first shot in the latest Net messaging battle by releasing MSN Messenger, allowing its users to connect to AOL's IM services. AOL, in turn, tweaked its protocol to block MSN Messenger from connecting to AOL servers.

The battle escalated over the weekend with each company shifting protocols to get around the blockades. On Tuesday, Microsoft said it rebuffed AOL's request for an agreement to end hostilities. AOL is waging similar battles against Prodigy and Yahoo's IM services.

The Apple and AOL collaboration will allow Mac users to exchange messages online in real time with friends, family, and colleagues, as well as with 40 million AOL IM users, the companies said.

Winning the loyalty of Apple users may be increasingly vital as the resurgent computer maker's Net-centric iMac computers continue to fly off the shelves. Apple is also hoping to build on the success of iMac with the September release of the iBook, its new line of laptops.

Apple held the No. 3 ranking in retail and mail-order sales with an 11.2 percent market share in June, behind only Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer, according to a recent PC Data report. Apple's unit shipments soared 110 percent over the year-ago period.

AOL's IM service is by far a runaway success, with 40 million registered users on its Buddy List network, which includes AIM and screen names from its proprietary service. Last year it acquired instant messenger ICQ, which has 35 million registered users as of March 1999.

As the rhetoric heats up between the two sides, analysts and observers have noted the odd juxtaposition that appears to be taking place. AOL in the past has promoted openness in specific areas such as the market for high-speed Net access via cable, citing the need for competition. Meanwhile, Microsoft has generally worked to protect its Windows franchise from incursions by competitors, prompting widespread accusations of monopolistic behavior, including an ongoing antitrust suit being waged by the Justice Department.

Now, in an effort to break into the instant messaging market, Microsoft is embracing "open standards" that will link AOL, Microsoft, and other messaging systems, while AOL is fighting to protect what in essence is a proprietary network.

Industry experts note that Microsoft may feel threatened by the notion that computer users may increasingly chose to work on Web-based, platform-independent applications rather than the software giant's dominant Windows-based software.

Separately today, Microsoft said its MSN Messenger service has signed on 700,000 users since it launched six days ago. In the latest shot in a public relations volley, Microsoft is highlighting positive user feedback about MSN Messenger's ability to communicate with AIM users, as well as its privacy features. AOL has alleged that MSN Messenger violates privacy because it asks users to type in their AIM password to access their Buddy Lists.

But Microsoft maintained the new service is a hit because it opens up communication with AOL's coveted user base.

"Consumers are installing MSN Messenger Service at an unprecedented rate," Brad Chase, Microsoft vice president of the Consumer and Commerce Group, said in a statement. "The early popularity of this service is a clear indication that we've struck a chord with consumers by offering functionality that they are demanding."