As the IM wars escalate again, consumers are claiming they're the casualties.
Yahoo on Wednesday evening began blocking third-party instant messaging clients in what it claimed was a "pre-emptive" action against IM spam, or "spim."
Just a few hours after Yahoo changed its instant messenger protocols, Cerulean Studios issued a patch to allow users of its popular Trillian software to connect again with users of Yahoo's messaging program.
For people who use popular third-party messaging clients such as Cerulean's Trillian, or smaller services such as Gaim, the reaction was instantaneous and negative. Speculation began flying about whether battling spim, currently a minor issue, was Yahoo's true intention.
"This is just Yahoo's attempt to stifle progress," one person wrote on CNET News.com's message board. "Trillian brings the IM worlds together. Why does (Yahoo) keep splitting it apart and saying it's to increase 'security' on their network?"
Regardless of intention, Yahoo's management of its IM network preserves the network's exclusivity. Like Yahoo's service, other major messaging services such as America Online's AOL Instant Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger are proprietary networks that cannot communicate with competing systems. People who have contacts on different IM services must launch multiple messaging clients to talk to everybody.
Historic battles between the Big Three of Internet services have been ugly. In 1999, AOL and Microsoft engaged in a public spat after MSN Messenger launched with the ability to chat with AIM users. AOL considered Microsoft's action a "hack" into their systems and blocked MSN.
Microsoft eventually relented, but the block would later haunt AOL. A coalition of companies led by Microsoft launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to point out AOL's unfair IM market dominance when AOL was trying to acquire Time Warner. Yahoo was part of that coalition.
What Trillian and other third-party providers do is combine multiple buddy lists under a common interface. But that interface means Yahoo, AOL and MSN can't differentiate themselves via features such as emoticons. They also can't serve advertisements or direct users to other areas of their site networks.
"I don't think security is the biggest driver behind this" decision, said Genelle Hung, an analyst at market researcher The Radicati Group. "It's not something that Yahoo is really as concerned about as keeping its user base loyal."
Yahoo remained firm with its assertion that third-party providers are a spim threat to Yahoo Messenger users.
"Spammers are being aided by entities that are accessing our systems without our consent," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako.
A Cerulean representative did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Some analysts support Yahoo's decision. They point out that though spim remains a minor problem, e-mail in its early days also saw few issues with spam. But the spam problem has gotten worse every year. E-mail providers such as ISPs and Web sites have been forced to devote significant resources to battling spam and filing lawsuits against alleged spammers. Consumers themselves have clamored for companies to do more to battle the problem.
"By the time spim becomes a problem, there's not much to do about it," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Media. "You're in reactive mode."
One developer who works on Gaim, an open-source IM integrator like Trillian, expressed dismay that its users were blocked. Still, he supported Yahoo's move to stop spim before it starts.
"If Yahoo's motives are true, if they are honestly trying to help solve a spam problem, more power to them," Christian Hammond, a Gaim developer, said in an e-mail response.
In the meantime, Yahoo's Osako said consumers will see "frequent protocol changes" should third parties continue hurdling its blocks. In the meantime, angry Trillian users will keep pointing fingers at the Web giant and claiming foul.
"They should be honest with the public and explain (that) their beef with third-party software is potential lost advertising revenue, rather than pretending it is part of some noble antispam quest," wrote another News.com message board contributor.