The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has zeroed in on three technical proposals for creating an instant messaging standard.
The three proposals - developed by Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Fujitsu and others - were selected from a field of 10 proposals. AOL's last-minute submission was a general framework for instant messaging interoperability rather than a full-fledged protocol, so it was not chosen for further consideration.
IETF officials say all three of the selected protocols appear to interoperate with AOL's framework. AOL currently blocks instant messaging traffic from competitors such as AT&T and Microsoft.
"There are elements of our proposal in all three of the selected proposals," says Edwin Aoki, a principal engineer with AOL who is tracking the IETF effort. "We're not supporting any particular proposal. We will examine them all to see which will meet our needs."
The three protocol proposals selected for study by the IETF's Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP) working group are:
1) Instant Messaging and Presence using SIP (IMPS), an approach that uses the Session Initiation Protocol designed for telephone signalling applications to handle instant messages and online presence perception. This proposal team includes representatives from Cisco and Microsoft.
2) IMXP, a proposal that uses the Blocks Extensible Exchange Protocol, which itself supports XML-based messaging as its transport protocol. This proposal team is led by startup Invisible Worlds.
3) Simple Instant Messaging Protocol (SIMPLE), which uses servers as socket-level forwarders to transport messages. This proposal team includes employees of Fujitsu and MIT.
The merits of the three proposals were fiercely debated at a two-hour meeting held on August 1. By the meeting's end, the group was deadlocked on whether to choose one of the protocols or develop all three. If multiple proposals are chosen, the group will develop a common data format and gateways between the protocols.
IETF leaders asked representatives of the three teams to prepare a report outlining the commonalties and differences between their approaches and articulate whether or not they can converge their work into a single protocol. The report is due on August 21.
"It's very important that people don't see it as a failure if we end up with three protocols instead of one," says Patrik Faltstrom, who oversees the IMPP working group as director of the IETF applications area. "We had to develop gateways anyway because we have to interoperate between our protocol and the ones used by AOL and [its subsidiary] ICQ."
Aoki says it is premature for AOL to comment on whether it will support multiple instant messaging standards if that's what the IETF develops.
"AOL will feel pressure to implement whatever standard the IETF develops," asserts Keith Moore, a former IETF applications area director. But Moore says, "there's so much more potential for instant messaging in the wireless world that AOL's installed base doesn't matter that much."
Formed more than two years ago, the IETF's IMPP working group has made little progress in its efforts to develop an instant messaging standard.