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Out with AOL, in with Jabber

Now that AOL has abandoned a protocol body's effort to standardize IM technology, the group may be on the verge of adopting an open-source alternative as a standards candidate.

When America Online closed its door on efforts to standardize instant messaging, a new one may have opened for Jabber.

Jabber, the XML-based instant messaging application that interoperates with multiple IM services, is close to winning approval for its own dedicated working group within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a development that would elevate the technology from one of many competing IM also-rans to that of a potential industry standard.

"They're pushing for a working group," said Ned Freed, the IETF's co-area director for applications and member of the group's decision-making Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). "I suspect we will be approving it in the very near future."

As a condition of its merger with Time Warner, AOL was required by the Federal Communications Commission to open its instant messaging system to rivals--a condition that critics dismissed as "toothless."

AOL spent the next few years standing by its pledge to achieve interoperability, citing its participation in the IETF standardization effort. The task force is custodian of protocols including the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Hyptertext Transport Protocol (HTTP).

But in June, the Internet giant acknowledged that it had shelved standardization work in favor of an approach to let rivals access its own proprietary system.

The IETF-proposed standard for instant messaging that AOL abandoned is still in progress. Dubbed SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions), it is an instant-messaging application of the group's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a technology with numerous applications apart from instant messaging.

SIMPLE proponents, however diminished in strength without AOL's backing, are putting up a fight to resist the Jabber invasion, arguing that the task force's energies are divided enough as it is without adding another instant messaging protocol to the mix.

In fact, there is a large handful of activities related to instant messaging, variously competing with and complementary to each other, in progress under the IETF's auspices.

In addition to SIMPLE, they include Application Exchange (APEX), a project that even its working group chair acknowledges is unlikely to prosper; the now moribund Presence and Instant Messaging Protocol (PRIM), which backers hope to revive in the future; and the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP), a group working on Common Presence and Instant Messaging (CPIM).

Adding to the alphabet soup
Jabber's bid is to add its own acronym to this alphabet soup: Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol XMPP.

At a recent "birds of a feather" session at the IETF's July meeting in Yokohama, Japan, SIMPLE advocates pushed their case that a Jabber working group would amount to too many cooks in the task force's already crowded instant messaging kitchen.

"Overall, it seemed to me that the vast majority of folks in the room were there from other IM working groups and were there to express their desire that the work not be done in the IETF," the session's chair wrote in a summary. "These folks seemed to want this on political-process grounds; not one expressed this desire on technical grounds."

SIMPLE has a natural constituency among telecommunications providers, which already use SIP.

Jabber proponents argue that an XML-based protocol would find a warm reception on the Internet, where the number of XML-based documents and applications is burgeoning.

And should the IETF approve a Jabber working group, it would start out with an installed base that no other IETF instant messaging activity can match. Jabber now claims that "as many as 100,000 of its servers are running across the Internet, with millions of people using the application. Licensees of Jabber's enterprise-grade software include AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Walt Disney, BellSouth, France Telecom and VA Linux Systems.

"The Jabber folks came largely due to the feeling that we might want to get a group with actual deployment," said the IETF's Freed. "There's a lot of appeal to the Jabber approach--and a constituency that wants to see it adopted. Having four of these (instant messaging protocols) is a bad thing, you could say, but let's face it--the market will ultimately decide whether any of it is relevant."

The CPIM protocol, which outlines what attributes an IETF instant messaging protocol must have, is designed to ensure interoperability among competing IETF projects. If Jabber and its competitors adhere to it, CPIM should alleviate technological, if not political, friction between Jabber and other IETF instant messaging activities.

Jabbering with others
In addition, Jabber's ability to communicate with other instant messaging systems allows it to extend an olive branch to its SIMPLE-backing opponents: Should Jabber incorporate SIMPLE into its server, a little of Jabber's success in the real world could rub off on that standard.

Jabber--which exists as both the for-profit Jabber.com and the open-source development group the Jabber Software Foundation--has much to gain from the potential IETF working group. In addition to the prestige and possible surge in adoption that task force's recognition would bring, Jabber backers are hoping that in exchange for ceding control of the technology to the IETF, they might get valuable technical help in areas where Jabber badly needs it--namely security and internationalization.

Having survived Yokohama, Jabber proponents are now awaiting next week's meeting of the Internet Engineering Steering Group. That group will receive more comment before making a final decision on Jabber's bid.

Should Jabber get the nod, it still would have a long way to go before getting the IETF's final imprimatur.

First the working group must publish numerous working drafts on the road to internal consensus. Then the document goes into the "last call" where it is open to comment. If consensus emerges from that stage, it becomes a proposed standard. Only after another six months of evaluation can it advance to a "draft standard." To make the leap from draft standard to standard, the protocol has to show evidence of "wide and useful deployment."

"A lot of stuff tends to wedge at 'proposed,' because the amount of work required to carry it forward is substantial," Freed noted. "So the Jabber folks have a long road to hoe. And there are a lot of things that can go wrong. If there's a bug in a standard, the whole process resets and you go back to proposed."

Jabber's founder called the IETF bid a success in itself for the project and its values.

"Any progress and work towards a common open IM standard on any front will benefit the entire emerging IM marketplace," said 27-year-old Jabber founder Jeremie Miller, now a member of the Jabber Software Foundation board. "What Jabber.org has always been was a collaborative project by those interested in creating open interoperable IM technologies based on XML, and for those protocols to have gained enough popularity and use to warrant a standards effort is a sign that openness and interoperability are still deeply valued attributes on the Internet."