The prospect of AOL Time Warner Inc offering interoperable instant messaging or IM-based video services retreated further into the future this week, with the publication of a regulatory filing in which it said it has put interoperability work on the back burner,writes Kevin Murphy.
In a filing July 16 with the US Federal Communications Commission, AOL said that technical challenges have forced it to pursue "alternatives" to server-to-server IM interoperability. As a result, it could be barred from offering IM-based videoconferencing services to its cable internet users.
When the FCC approved the merger of AOL and Time Warner 18 months ago, it said AOL would not be permitted to offer "advanced IM-based high-speed services (AIHS)", such as videoconferencing, over its own network until it had opened its IM services to interoperability with third party services.
The FCC's approval stipulates that the interoperability must be server-to-server, and it must either conform to an industry standard protocol or be with the systems of more than one "significant" third party IM service provider.
But AOL said in its third biannual FCC status report filing that it "has decided on a going forward basis to focus its efforts on pursuing alternative solutions that will enable its IM users to communicate with the users of alternative IM providers". The company said this rules out server-to-server interoperability for the time being.
AOL pointed to its recent deal with Apple Computer Inc as a template for "compatible" instant messaging. Apple has developed an IM client, iChat, that accesses the AOL Instant Messenger network directly. Usernames have suffixes identifying them as iChat users. AOL hosts the whole system.
"We believe this kind of hosted IM solution provides, at least in the short-term, a secure, reliable and cost-effective means to provide interoperability between AOL IM and unaffiliated IM communities," AOL associate general counsel Steven Teplitz wrote in the SEC filing.
"AOL has not, however, foreclosed the use of a server-to-server solution if and when one is developed," Teplitz added. AOL spokespeople did not return a request for additional information by press time yesterday.
In the face of criticism from users and rival IM service providers such as Yahoo! Inc and Microsoft Corp, AOL has long maintained that its stalling on interoperable IM is aimed at protecting the security and privacy of its millions of users, as well as the performance of its own AIM network.
In its last FCC status report, AOL said it was conducting trials of a system that would allow server interoperability of AIM with Lotus Development Corp's IM systems. The company built a gateway that converted its proprietary protocol into SIMPLE (the incomplete Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leverage).
"While the Lotus test demonstrated that, at the very least, a gateway server for server-to-server interoperability could be effectively designed, the prototype server was limited in scope and functionality," AOL's filing reads. The project "would require further significant expenditures of time and resources to develop."
Instant messaging developers and users believe that IM currently looks like email in its infancy, when users could not send mail to users of other ISPs, and that for the technology to mature it needs to be interoperable. AOL's market stranglehold prevents this, they argue.
The FCC's decision to tie AIHS (an acronym of its own invention) to the merger approval was seen by some as a tenuous attempt to appease these critics. Because of the FCC's communications mandate, the conditions only apply to AOL's Time Warner Cable broadband network users.
Being temporarily barred from offering IM-based video services may be a moot point in the short term, anyway. AOL seems far more interested in having AIM deployed to wireless devices, in an attempt to have it become as popular as SMS in Europe, than it is in allowing its handful of broadband subscribers to video each other.