FCC adds to instant messaging standards mess

The interoperability outlook for the instant messaging and presence market keeps growing cloudier. Some of the blame lies with the instant messaging/presence industry itself. Vendors and service providers have spent years developing, proposing and bickering over interoperability specifications that always seem to die in committee.

But federal regulators are also responsible for hindering standards-based, multivendor instant messaging/presence interoperability. Last month, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission let America Online Inc. keep its instant messaging/presence services closed and proprietary when merging with Time Warner Inc. The FCC said it could not justify imposing third-party interconnection requirements on AOL's "earned monopoly" in Internet-based instant messaging/presence services.

Paradoxically, the FCC, in the same decision, didn't shy away from requiring AOL Time Warner Inc. to interconnect its cable TV systems' broadband networks with third-party Internet service providers.

Adding insult to idiocy, the FCC imposed supremely bogus "restrictions" on AOL Time Warner's instant messaging/presence services. The commission said if AOL Time Warner sought to integrate its current instant messaging/presence service into cable TV-based videoconferencing services, the firm would have to interconnect with others providing similar instant messaging-enabled broadband videoconferencing services.

Opening AOL's instant messaging/presence services would not be such a nightmare. But under an alternative scenario, the FCC could have required AOL Time Warner to publish the proprietary protocols on which AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ are based. The regulators could have required the media monolith to stipulate nondiscriminatory interconnection procedures and interfaces with which third-party instant messaging/ presence solution providers would have had to comply. AOL could have been given the latitude to deny interconnection from third parties that failed to block instant messaging-based viruses, spam and porn. If the FCC had placed these conditions on the merger, AOL Time Warner would continue to enjoy a predominant market position in the instant message world.

Instead, the FCC decision leaves the instant messaging/presence market so balkanized among incompatible, vendor-proprietary protocols that we may have to wait years to see a universal instant messaging/presence infrastructure that rivals today's standards-based Internet e-mail environment. Last year, the failure of the IETF's Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP) Working Group to publish draft interoperability standards was a major disappointment. Indeed, the IMPP Working Group is on the verge of dissolution and has not yet merged competing proposals into a unified draft standard.

Instant messaging and presence cannot be enterprise-grade services without open interoperability specifications. For example, at the server-to-server level you won't be able to easily interface premises-based and outsourced instant messaging/presence environments.

The IMPP Working Group's failure kills any hopes the industry had to see standards this year. For some time, most instant messaging vendors and service providers have bowed toward the "eventual" IMPP standards. Even AOL has expressed a general commitment to some day implement whatever standard emerges from the group. Now it's clear that the wait-for-IMPP approach has proven counterproductive for the industry.

The most likely beneficiary of the IMPP Working Group's failure is the Jabber.org instant messaging/ presence open-source initiative. Jabber stands a decent chance of becoming a de facto industry interoperability framework in lieu of IMPP. For now, though, Jabber is just one of many competing interoperability frameworks in a crowded, confusing marketplace.

To develop into a business-grade service, the instant messaging/presence industry will need to break through the standards stalemate this year. It's just not clear who will provide the leadership necessary to pull it from the muck.

This story, "FCC adds to instant messaging standards mess" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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