Yahoo's encouraging words for IM standards

Executive newly in charge of the company's instant-messaging work appears open to an IM standard. That could help fix fragmentation problems in the world of online chat.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

For more than a decade, the Internet has suffered from multiple incompatible communication standards for instant messaging. Now it looks like Yahoo, one of the major IM players, is open to breaking the logjam.

I'm a power user of IM who struggles to find software that supports chatting with people on the four main IM networks: AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. Today's situation, for me at least, is like having to own four e-mail programs for different networks or four telephones for incompatible phone systems.

So I was encouraged by words from Scott Dietzen, Yahoo's new head of communications products including Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo Mail. That promotion expanded his turf from his previous position at the helm of the Zimbra online e-mail software start-up that Yahoo acquired last year.

Zimbra, like Google and some other non-incumbent powers in the world of instant messaging, has used the open XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) standard for instant messaging. It's this standard that Dietzen apparently sees playing a broader role at Yahoo.

"I believe XMPP is the right platform through which to deliver interoperability with at least some of our partners," Dietzen said in an interview.

No doubt one of those partners would be Google. Generally, it's one of Yahoo's biggest rivals, but Google became a major partner in a search-ad deal with Yahoo announced in June. A sidelight to the deal was one line saying the companies would make their IM services interoperable. It's hard to say at this stage, though, how far Yahoo or others might go.

One-time deals or standards?
As I see it, there are two basic paths to IM interoperability. The first, which we've been on for some time, consists of one-off technology partnerships between various networks. For example, Microsoft and Yahoo's IM services now can link together, and the Google Web-based IM service built into Gmail works with AIM.

Interoperability problems are denying us a broader, richer world of real-time online communication.

But that approach only truly works as long as all networks set up partnerships with all other networks--a combinatorics nightmare given the arrival of new IM services from companies such as MySpace, Facebook, and eBay's Skype. That's where the second approach--using a standard--comes in handy.

E-mail previously had assorted closed communities including America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, and the Internet itself. The standard prevalent on the latter network, SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) won out in the long run. It's got shortcomings--for example identity authentication issues that contribute to the spam and security problems--but those problems arguably are easier to fix with one standard than many.

Standards move notoriously slowly, of course, especially when compared with the rest of the technology industry. But the Internet has reached a scale where IM incompatibilities have major consequences that retard innovation, too. Standards might hamper the development of new IM features, but I believe interoperability problems are denying us a broader, richer world of real-time online communication.

So if the IM powers want to move to IM standards, the next question is which standard to use.

Here, too, Dietzen has an opinion. When I asked him what's been holding back IM interoperability, he had this to offer: "There are two competing potential standards, XMPP and...SIP. If I were betting, I'd bet on XMPP emerging as the likely framework for adoption."

SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, grew out of the world of telephony and is more oriented toward multimedia than straight text.

But XMPP looks to have an inside track among the incumbent IM powers. For one thing, Yahoo's Zimbra software framework supports it, Dietzen said.

For another, Yahoo opted to use XMPP in its Yahoo Live experimental video service, according to Process One, a Parisian company that sells XMPP-based IM server software using the open-source ejabberd software.

And there are signs others might be interested, too. Earlier this year, AOL began experimenting with an XMPP interface to its AIM and ICQ networks for instant messaging.

So perhaps there's an end in sight for this particular Tower of Babel. Adopting a standard means the IM networks will have to let go of some control, but if done right, it also could mean instant messaging could become a more popular, active, and useful part of the Internet.