IM group works toward interoperability

In the absence of a standard protocol for instant messaging (IM), a coalition of service providers is in the final stages of testing interoperability specifications that would allow users of the various IM services to chat with one another.

IMUnified published the specifications in August and has been testing them since then, said Estela Mendoza, spokeswoman for the group of IM providers.

Members of IMUnified include AT&T Corp., Excite@Home, Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Network, Odigo Inc., Phone.com Inc., Prodigy Services Corp., Yahoo Inc. and iCast Corp. (see story).

"Right now, we've been in the middle of testing. We will be interoperable very soon," said Mendoza. Others in IMUnified said the release would be "imminent."

The companies said they formed IMUnified this summer because they recognized the importance of IM as a communications medium and to force industry leader America Online Inc. to open its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) user base to other IM services. Currently, users of other IM services are blocked from communicating with users of AOL's IM service.

Dulles, Va.-based AOL is protecting its user base, analysts say, to keep members loyal to its service and because of the marketing potential that users present to advertisers.

Interoperability isn't completely new. Some of the IMUnified member companies are already interoperable with each other.

Bill Kirkner at Prodigy, which uses Odigo Messenger technology, said users chatting through Odigo can chat with Yahoo users, as well as with users of AIM and ICQ, which AOL owns. There's no explicit agreement between Odigo and AOL, but AOL isn't currently blocking Odigo from linking into the AIM and ICQ user bases and hasn't for three or four months, said Odigo spokesman Alex Diamandis.

This summer, AOL blocked Odigo Messenger from interacting with IM users. Odigo responded by saying its users could download a patch for free at the Odigo Web site that restored interoperability between Odigo Messenger and AIM.

But companies said they'd prefer to have a protocol standard, instead of using a back-door approach to make their way to interoperability.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is working toward such a protocol. It has accepted three proposals for consideration: Presence and Instant Messaging (PRIM); SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions, also known as SIMPLE, which uses an existing protocol, Session Initiation Protocol; and Instant Messaging Exchange Protocol (IMXP) (see story).

In December, the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP) working group of the IETF said it would create an interoperability standard. However, Kirkner and Diamandis said the IMPP working group is being reformed, and a standard protocol created from parts of all three proposals is the next step.

The protocol standard would have all IM services built fundamentally the same, while interoperability means IM software engineers will restructure diverse programs to communicate with each other.

The problem, Kirkner said, is that once the working group agrees on the specifications of a protocol, it will take at least a year of vetting before it is approved, and the IMPP doesn't even have the specification yet.

In the meantime, IMUni fied is moving ahead with interoperability. "This is the expeditious solution," Diamandis said.

The government is watching the interoperability wars as well.

When Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard approved the merger of AOL and Time Warner Inc., he said that IM could become as ubiquitous as the telephone and therefore put restrictions on how AOL could use the installed cable infrastructure of New York-based Time Warner to carry its own AIM service and block rival services.

"Our goal is to make sure no one company dominates [IM]," Kennard said at the time.

So the FCC required AOL Time Warner Inc. to adhere to industry guidelines, such as those the IETF might approve. Or, the merged company must sign interoperability contracts with other vendors by the time it's ready to carry applications, like streaming video, over its cable network. An application like streaming video might be embedded into the IM application or run concurrently.

IM interoperability isn't only a consumer concern. Businesses are looking to IM more as a critical collaborative tool (see story).

Right now, the only business IM software that's interoperable with AIM and ICQ is Sametime from Lotus Development Corp. Lotus and Microsoft are neck-in-neck rivals in the corporate messaging and collaboration software business.

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