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Open mouth, insert foot?

Tue, 08/31/1999 - 8:00pm
Roger Brown
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By Roger Brown, How can AOL be considered as anything other than hypocritical?

Those who follow the trials, tribulations and squabbles between corporate giants are all atwitter over the recent war between Microsoft and America Online over instant messaging, the real-time, private communications service that AOL subscribers love to use.

The titan-sized conflict began in late July, when Microsoft and Yahoo released their own instant messaging software that allowed their users to communicate with AOL's service, which is used by more than 40 million people. AOL, citing unauthorized and potentially harmful access to its system, moved quickly to block the rival software from working. Microsoft then reworked its Messenger software to get around the roadblocks, and AOL responded again with new speed bumps.

The story gets more interesting when it's revealed that the online community is calling for AOL to share its instant messaging software code with everyone else, creating a de facto standard. AOL actually operates two different messaging services—AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) and ICQ (I Seek You)—that support 78 million users who send about 780 million messages a day, roughly 12 times the number of e-mail messages sent daily.

Rival services would love to offer a standardized, instant messaging service. But AOL is resisting, citing its unwillingness to open its server network to its competitors. The competitors counter that an IETF-approved standard wouldn't violate anyone's privacy.

It's hard to see why AOL, which developed the messaging software, would be in any hurry to simply give away its code, however. The company is under incredible pressure from Microsoft, which wants to drive the cost of Internet access to practically zero, and no doubt wants to provide as much value as possible for its $21.95 monthly fee.

Personally, I can't blame AOL for resisting those who are calling for a standard. I couldn't care less if Yahoo or MSN subscribers can't tell if I'm online and can't send me a real-time message (after all, they can still contact me via e-mail). But I cannot understand how the company can be considered as anything other than hypocritical, given its very public call for open access to cable networks. How can the nation's largest online service argue that consumers should have an unfettered choice of providers—over cable, DSL or any other type of network—while at the same time proclaim that its messaging service is closed to all but those it authorizes?

Lawyers who represent cable operators such as AT&T Cable Services and Comcast in their heated local spats over access are already using AOL's stance on instant messaging as defense mechanisms. Perhaps AOL will discover that the best way to deal with other service providers is to work out acceptable business arrangements, instead of crying foul in front of Congress. Funny how the world looks when the tables are turned, no?

E-mail: Roger Brown

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