If AOL Time Warner Inc has any intention of driving the instant messaging market towards open, email-style, interoperability, it is certainly taking the slow lane,writes Kevin Murphy.
It emerged yesterday that the latest of several incremental moves towards interoperability will see AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ, AOL's two IM properties, interoperate.
According to developer news site BetaNews.com, the latest beta of AIM 5.1 allows ICQ members screen names to be added to AIM buddy lists with the suffix "-ICQ". The site reported that users of the systems will not be able to send instant messages to each other until a new version of the ICQ client is also released.
AOL has previously maintained that there was no customer demand from either of its user bases to speak to each other, a position it appears to have reversed. Both services are free, and both use AOL's network of servers to relay messages. Technically, interoperability is purely an issue of client support, according to BetaNews.
Many in the industry think that it's only a matter of time before the major public IM networks become interoperable. Once, AOL's participation would have been required for such a drive, and rivals lobbied hard to have that made a condition of the AOL-Time Warner merger in 2000.
But rival consumer IM services from Yahoo! Inc and Microsoft Corp, and the emergence of IM as an enterprise-grade application, means AOL throwing open its network to third parties may not be a prerequisite to kick-start interoperability. Nevertheless, the media giant has been tiptoeing towards such a state of affairs for some time.
Under the terms of the US Federal Communications Commission's approval of the AOL Time Warner merger, AOL is not permitted to launch "advanced IM-based high-speed services (AIHS)" over Time Warner cable until it interoperates. AIHS are presumed to mean video conferencing.
But the company essentially decided against open IM following reluctant interoperability testing with IBM Corp's Lotus SameTime, announcing this summer that it would instead look towards commercial agreements along the lines of the one it struck with Apple Computer Inc. The Apple deal, however, just puts a Mac client on the AIM network.
Another small step towards interoperability came in April when PresenceWorks Inc, a small enterprise IM software vendor, announced that its server software was compatible with AIM, and that AOL had given its blessing to such a state of affairs. AOL is also known to be working on its own enterprise IM systems by adding security and logging to its existing technology.