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Microsoft releases third fix to AOL messaging block

Microsoft renews efforts to gain the upper hand over America Online in a war brewing over so-called instant messaging services.

Microsoft has renewed efforts to gain the upper hand over America Online in a war brewing over so-called instant messaging services.

Microsoft has apparently fired another shot at AOL by releasing yet another fix to AOL's Buddy List blockade. Microsoft's third fix was put in place last night after AOL redoubled its initiative over the weekend to block users of Microsoft's MSN Messenger. However, MSN Messenger users cannot access AOL users when both instant messaging clients are opened.

"We are going to continue to provide interoperability for the foreseeable future," a Microsoft spokesman said today.

The online rivals played out the same scenario Friday.

Several CNET readers reported yesterday that they had been able to connect using a fix released Friday by Microsoft, but that by yesterday morning, AOL had managed to block them out again. Microsoft apparently released another fix yesterday afternoon.

Neither AOL nor Microsoft could be reached for comment.

AOL has stated its intention is to isolate users of its Instant Messenger and ICQ programs for security reasons, but Microsoft has charged that excluding users of MSN Messenger and a beta version of Yahoo's instant messaging software risks splintering the fast-growing market. There's also suspicion that front-running AOL is trying to shield its large and valuable user base--many of whom don't subscribe to AOL's Internet access service--from commercial rivals just entering the market.

One expert predicted the skirmish is likely to escalate into a technical war. "There is a potential for this to turn real nasty from a technical point of view," Vijay Saraswat, cochair of the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol, wrote in an email interview.

"If [Microsoft] includes in their software the ability for it to randomly generate any one of a whole slew of version strings, AOL would basically not be able to block them out," he said.

Thursday, when Microsoft belatedly launched its MSN Messenger, it threw its support behind the IETF's efforts to develop a standard protocol for instant messaging, intended to make independent technologies compatible. MSN Messenger is designed to work with rival instant messaging software as well as integrate MSN Hotmail, the company's free email service.

AOL promptly criticized Microsoft's MSN Messenger, charging that it poses a security risk to AOL users. When new MSN Messenger users want to import their AOL Buddy Lists, they are required to type in their passwords. AOL said Microsoft is "goading" users to reveal their passwords and compared the practice to what hackers do. In response, Microsoft said security is not an issue because the company cannot access the passwords.

"Just as we have in the past, we continue to block anyone who attempts to use the AOL infrastructure in an unauthorized way regardless of whether those infringements involve new products or efforts like spamming, hacking, or password stealing," AOL spokeswoman Ann Brackbill said yesterday.

Users of Microsoft and Yahoo's services initially were able to send instant messages to AOL screen names. But Friday morning, a number of CNET readers, including members of the IETF charged with seeking a standard protocol, reported that they were unable to send messages from MSN Messenger software to users of AOL Instant Messenger, despite having been able to do so the day before.

The readers said attempts to send messages from Microsoft's software to AOL Instant Messenger users resulted in an "incorrect password/login" error. Some said the same was true for Yahoo Messenger, Yahoo's second-generation instant-messaging client, which is currently in beta.

According to Brian Park, senior producer for Yahoo Messenger, the protocols used to build interoperability with AOL Instant Messenger stopped working.

"They were working last night, and they are not working today," he said on Friday. "I'm assuming that AOL made a change to their protocols."

A Microsoft spokesman called AOL's act "unfortunate" and against consumer demands for open instant messaging platforms. "They are more focused on maintaining their own situation than what's right for their consumers."

AOL's Brackbill disagreed. "This has nothing to do with being unreceptive to consumers," she said. "In our view, Microsoft's just violated the cardinal rule of the Internet by asking our users their screen names."

Interestingly, MSN Messenger does not allow communication with Yahoo Messenger.

Meanwhile, Prodigy, which offers a similar service, has called for a meeting of Internet companies to create an open standard that would let anyone send instant messages to anybody else, regardless of what online service they use, according to Bloomberg.

Prodigy developed its own instant messaging service based on technology released by AOL, but after two months of use AOL blocked Prodigy members from sending the instant messages to AOL members, according to Prodigy. Bill Kirkner, Prodigy's chief technology officer, said AOL asked Prodigy instead to license AOL's own instant messaging software and pay for the ability to send the messages to AOL subscribers, Bloomberg reported.

"They were soliciting software developers to go out and use" the instant messaging technology released by AOL, Bloomberg quoted Kirkner as saying. "That's what you do to get something to become an open standard. Then they yanked the protocol back and said we had to pay them."

AOL is opposed to the proposed standard because it wants to protect its existing market dominance, analysts said. AOL also owns ICQ, another popular instant messaging service that the company has turned into a "desktop communications portal." As of June, ICQ had 35 million registrations.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.