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AOL rivals make progress on instant chat spec

A coalition of the online giant's rivals has developed a technical blueprint to allow their instant messaging services to communicate with one another.

A coalition of America Online's rivals has developed a technical blueprint to allow their instant messaging services to communicate with one another.

Dubbed IMUnified, the coalition comprises AOL's biggest competitors, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Excite@Home, AT&T, Prodigy Communications and CMGI-owned iCast and Tribal Voice.

The creation of technical specifications is one step in an ongoing process to let separate instant messaging systems interoperate. The coalition members want their services to work with those of competitors until a universal standard is developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, an industry standards body.

Representatives from IMUnified would not elaborate today on the technical specifications, adding that the proposals are under review by other collaborators.

AOL dominates the instant messaging market. The company runs AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ, the two largest instant messaging services, with more than 131 million registered members combined. Both services are free and can be downloaded by any Web-enabled PC. AOL's flagship online service and its CompuServe division offer instant messaging in their packages of features.

"We certainly will review their technology specification when it is made publicly available," said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. "We remain committed to protecting privacy and security of our instant messaging environment."

Instant messaging allows people to send text messages to each other in real time. However, those people can only communicate if they use the same service, meaning Yahoo Messenger users cannot chat with AIM members. Industry technologists are trying to create a universal standard for instant messaging interoperability, but these efforts have stalled during the past year.

Rival instant messaging services have attempted to force AOL's hand by tapping into the company's roster of instant messenger customers, but the online giant has responded by blocking those moves. Competitors argue that AOL must open its network to rivals for instant messaging to be useful.

For the participants of IMUnified, the move to join forces underscores frustration with AOL's hesitation to open its instant messaging network.

"We're saying their behavior is reprehensible in the Internet environment," said Bill Kirkner, chief technology officer for online service Prodigy, an IMUnified participant. "Their actions smack of anti-competitiveness, and they're clearly trying to monopolize the space."

AOL has testified to federal regulators that it is building technology to work with outside servers. The company has said it will take a year to build the technology and security to protect its customers.

Puppet masters: Who controls the Net The online giant also has said it will work with Internet standards bodies should a universal system be approved. AOL's Primrose added that the service has been free to online consumers since 1997, and the company is "unwavering" in its commitment to privacy and security.

Those promises have recently faced scrutiny from politicians and regulators. AOL is undergoing review for approval of its proposed merger with Time Warner, and members of Congress have written letters that urge regulators to consider instant messaging in the review process.

The IMUnified specification will be implemented by the end of the year, Prodigy's Kirkner said.