AOL releases its version of IM standards

The online giant proposes instant messaging standards that would clear the way for rival services to work together, a significant move given its dominance in the market.

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 proposed instant messaging standards that would clear the way for rival services to work together.

The submission yesterday came on the final day for companies to hand their proposals for open instant messaging standards to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the industry's standards body. The IETF allows any individual or group to submit a version for the standards. IETF will review the proposals and eventually choose one.

Gartner analyst Joyce Graff says instant messaging is not simply the right of free speech. Although there are technical issues, the greater issues are security, privacy, capacity and, ultimately, who pays for the service.

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"It's a very good first step," said Vijay Saraswat, co-chairman of the IETF working group on Instant Messaging Presence Protocol, about the submissions. "We have a wealth of good thinking on the table."

AOL's move is significant given its dominance in instant messaging and its lead in the marketplace.

AOL has waged battles with rival instant messenger services that have tried tapping into AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). It has fought Microsoft, Prodigy, CMGI's iCast and Tribal Voice, and start-up Odigo after those services began communicating with AIM users without consent.

Instant messengers allow people to communicate in real time using text. Most services are proprietary, meaning members of one private network cannot chat with members of another.

Rivals say AOL should open AIM's network of 91 million Buddy List screen names and its ICQ roster of 62 million registered users to outside technologies. They say instant messaging will be as ubiquitous as the telephone in the future, and that all technologies should be able to communicate with one another.

While AOL has stated its commitment to the standards process, rivals have criticized the online giant for not keeping up with its promises. Tribal Voice and iCast have taken their complaints to federal regulators and have solicited support from other industry members, including Microsoft and Excite@Home.

The companies have asked federal regulators to examine AOL's grip on the market as part of its pending merger with Time Warner. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have asked AOL to submit data about its instant messaging services, according to reports.

Vijay Saraswat
Co-chairman of the IETF's
IMPP working group
Discussing what happens with the proposals next.

AOL has criticized its competitors' efforts as a threat to the security and privacy of its members. The company has maintained that it supports the standards process, but it has turned a cold shoulder to what it deems "fast track" solutions from other companies.

AOL's proposal includes provisions for full interoperability between AOL's IM networks and competitors, data encryption, single-service registration, and the preservation of existing screen names. Puppet masters: Who controls the Net

While a proposal may be a step in the right direction, some of AOL's competitors remain skeptical. Avner Ronen, a founder of Odigo, which is embroiled in a battle over interoperability with AOL, said action will speak louder than words.

"It's a good start, and hopefully they'll follow up with it," Ronen said. "(But) if they're really committed, they'll show the public that they're for open standards and allow a company like Odigo to be interoperable with AIM."