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Instant messaging companies gather to talk strategy

A large group of America Online's rivals convene at the Instant Messaging 2000 conference in an effort to hasten the adoption of Web standards for the notoriously fragmented industry.

BOSTON--America Online may have been absent, but its sway over instant messaging was present here today, as a large group of its rivals convened in an effort to hasten the adoption of Web standards for the notoriously fragmented industry.

Some presenters at the Instant Messaging 2000 conference, including Microsoft and Yahoo, expressed frustration with the lack of progress to date, pointing to AOL as the key roadblock to interoperability between its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ services and a plethora of new products.

AOL's competitors said they are in discussions to join forces against their common enemy by independently agreeing on a competing standard rather than waiting for AOL to open its AIM and ICQ networks.

"It's been a struggle figuring out what's the fastest way to get (to interoperability)," said Yahoo's Brian Park, a senior producer who oversees Yahoo Instant Messenger. "I think the reason why we're here is to find out who are the companies that are interested and to start talking more actively with them."

Many have tried and failed to take AOL's crown as the king of instant messaging, a popular technology that allows people to find friends and colleagues online and engage in short email-like exchanges in real time.

Internet, telecommunications and technology infrastructure companies want to get their fingers into the instant messaging pot because of its accelerating popularity and its potential for future uses.

Many of today's attendees support creating one central network where all instant messaging users, regardless of which company created the technology they access, can communicate with one another. But these companies first need to convince AOL to open its network--and the names of its millions of members--to outsiders.

Inspired by the success of products such as AIM, which is used by more than 91 million people, several competitors have released their own IM products. But they face enormous odds given AOL's huge lead and its policy of blocking rivals from tapping into its database of usernames, or "Buddy List."

In an email, an AOL representative said that the company is "willing to work with anyone in the industry to bring instant messaging to consumers in a way that protects consumers' privacy and security."

The email noted recent deals with more than a dozen companies--including IBM, Novell, Lycos, EarthLink, Apple Computer and Juno Online Services--to customize and integrate AIM technology into their products.

You've got Time Warner Still, AOL has been dogged by criticism from competitors, which accuse the company of sacrificing consumer interests to maintain an iron grip over its enormous audience. Disagreements between AOL and rivals including Microsoft, CMGI's Tribal Voice and AT&T have spilled into open warfare over unauthorized attempts by these companies to tap into AIM's database of usernames.

AOL rivals have gone so far as to ask federal regulators to treat the Internet giant's refusal to open its network to outsiders as a key competitive issue relating to its pending merger with Time Warner.

CMGI's iCast and Tribal Voice filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission last week asking officials to "encourage" AOL to open its network.

Breaking its long silence on instant messaging standards, Yahoo today suggested the time has come to build a coalition of companies capable of moving forward without AOL.

"You will see us find a few key companies to work with just to show Yahoo users that at least this is possible," Yahoo's Park said. "The goal would be to adopt our own standard or publish our own so that hundreds of companies can apply the Yahoo standard if they want to."

Park said the company is in talks with "all the major players," a group that would include Microsoft and Tribal Voice.

Though Microsoft has crossed swords with AOL over instant messaging in the past--and expressed frustration with the progress on standards--the company appeared less willing to move forward independently.

Puppet masters: Who controls the Net "It would be absolutely great to have AOL here," said Francis de Souza, a product manager for the software giant who is representing the company at the event. "They could move us forward very quickly."

De Souza said Microsoft remains committed to working on interoperability with the official Internet standards body, known as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

But he also opened the door to the possibility of moving ahead independently.

"We want AOL in that party, but frankly we can't wait for AOL," he said.

News.com's Jim Hu reported from Boston, and Evan Hansen reported from San Francisco.