Tech Firms Lobby for Open IM Standards

A group of 43 technology companies including Microsoft Corp. and CMGI Inc. has sent a letter to Washington urging support for instant-messaging (IM) interoperability. The letter, sent to the U.S.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), expressed "concern" about the IM marketplace in light of the proposed America Online Inc. merger with Time Warner Inc.

AOL has been criticized by other vendors for failing to allow users of its popular Instant Messenger software to exchange real-time messages with users of other messaging software.

In the letter, a group led by the recently formed industry organization FreeIM.org said the government shouldn't allow a single provider to put a wall around the market, either to keep their customers in or to keep competition and innovations out.

The letter was sent the same day a federal judge ruled that Microsoft be split into two companies, following the judge's findings that the company had abused a monopoly position to stifle competition and innovation.

Concerns about the IM market began when AOL, which controls 90 percent of the IM market, blocked users of other IM services from communicating with AOL users, said Margaret Heffernan, CEO of iCast Corp., which also signed the letter.

"As IM continues to utilize content created by companies such as Time Warner, the potential merger raises even greater concerns about AOL blocking their users from access to non-AOL users," Heffernan said.

Heffernan said her company builds a product called iCaster, which has an IM application that's designed to be interoperable with AOL's IM as well as the IM applications of AT&T and others.

"But we keep getting blocked by AOL," she said.

Heffernan contends that AOL wants to own the IM market outright. She said the proposed AOL/Time Warner merger is the perfect opportunity to say AOL's abuse of the marketplace has to stop.

Neither the FCC nor AOL returned telephone calls seeking comment.

The US$350 billion, all-stock AOL/Time Warner deal - which requires FCC approval - would give AOL, the world's largest online access company, a new broadband distribution platform for its services, as well as new subscribers through New York-based Time Warner's media outlets.

Last month, Woburn, Massachusetts-based iCast and Denver-based Tribal Voice, signers of the group's letter, filed papers with the FCC alleging that the AOL/Time Warner merger would hurt IM users by expanding AOL's dominance of that market.

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More about America OnlineAOLAT&TCMGIFCCFederal Communications CommissionFederal Trade CommissionFTCiCastMessengerMicrosoftTime WarnerTribal Voice

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