A move to get instant messaging products to talk to one another gained momentum last week after a public shouting match between Microsoft and America Online helped nudge AOL into a standards effort it had previously shunned.
Development of an interoperability standard would be good news for corporate customers, who are starting to deploy instant messaging technology in workgroup environments. Instant messaging systems let users communicate in real time with select individuals who are also online.
"An instant messaging standard is inevitable, and it seems the technology has penetrated the market to the point that a standard is necessary," says Randy Vaughn, an IS professor at Baylor University who uses instant messaging software to communicate with his students instead of fielding telephone calls.
Changing course, AOL officials on Friday said they will work closely with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) group developing the instant messaging standard. AOL's support of the group -- which is expected to propose a standard before year-end -- is important because AOL has 40 million users of its instant chat and buddy list capabilities.
In a related move, AOL asked several computer industry leaders to join an advisory committee on instant messaging standards. The committee consists of Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs, AOL chief technology officer Marc Andreessen, Real Networks chairman Rob Glaser and Novell CEO Eric Schmidt.
Missing from the committee is Microsoft, which is engaged in a still-unresolved battle with AOL regarding the ability of their instant messaging systems to work together.
Whether AOL's committee will advance the standards efforts remains to be seen. "The members are recognisable names but not necessarily people who will make technical decisions about what will go out over the wire," says Gordon Mohr, CTO at Activerse and a member of the IETF group. More important is if AOL's engineers "express their interest and expertise inside the IETF", he says.
Getting a standard approved will further drive corporate use of instant messaging, predicts Mohr, whose company sells Ding, an instant messaging package for corporate environments. "Having a standard will make instant messaging a safer choice," Mohr says, adding that a standard could push the technology "into overdrive".
"Instant messaging is going to be hugely important. It could easily be the next killer application," says Keith Moore, an applications area director for the IETF and a researcher at the University of Tennessee. "It's very useful for people who are telecommuting to be able to see who else is online and have quick chats with their co-workers.
"The telephone turns out to be very awkward in these situations . . . ," he continues. "But where instant messaging has a lot of potential is when it is combined with wireless technology. It will help people stay in touch, not just when they're in front of their computers."
The IETF's Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol standard is still in its preliminary phase.
"The working group is trying to define the problem that the standard will solve," Moore says. "People have very different ideas about what instant messaging is. . . .We need to make sure that scalability and security are built into the standard. And it has to be able to deal with wireless transmission."
Moore predicts the standard's first draft will be released by year-end, and companies will start supporting the standard in their products early next year. Companies represented in the IETF group include Lotus, Microsoft, AT&T and Activerse.
Members of the IETF group look forward to participation from AOL engineers.
"Regardless of whether this speeds up or slows down the work, a broader constituency seems likely to improve the quality and acceptability of the result," Moore says.
Patrik Faltstrom, an applications area director with the IETF, says the group will develop its standard using a "rough consensus" approach. The procedures used by the IETF will put AOL on the same footing as companies such as Microsoft that are already participating in the group.
"We can look forward to interesting work in the IETF," he says.
Instant messaging standards came into the forefront in late July, when Microsoft introduced MSN Messenger service, which lets its users communicate with users of AOL's Instant Messenger service as well as other users of Microsoft's product.
AOL asserts that Microsoft's action was unauthorised, and as a result, AOL is blocking traffic from MSN Messenger users. AOL also blocks instant messaging traffic from Yahoo and Prodigy Communications.