Scratching the surface of IM (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
Dec 31, 2000
A piece from the Guadian on instant messaging, probably is more to it than you thought ? :)


Chat to the future

It's anarchy in the world of instant messaging, writes Jack Schofield

Thursday August 8, 2002
The Guardian

You can phone anyone you like, if they have a phone. You can email anyone with an email address, or send a letter to anyone with a postal address. But you can't send an instant message to anyone who uses instant messaging (IM), especially if they use AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM).

For the past three years, the company that dominates the market with AIM and ICQ has been intermittently blocking its rivals' attempts to send messages to its tens of millions of users. Last month, AOL more or less thumbed its nose at the American government. It said in a filing that technical difficulties meant it would try alternative approaches to the server-to-server links stipulated by the Federal Communications Commission when it allowed AOL to take over CNN Time Warner.

AOL now thought gateways "would require further significant expenditures of time and resources to develop". Boiled down to the bones, AOL's position is that it is not worth giving up any of the speed, privacy or security features enjoyed by the majority to provide interoperability for a minority who could simply download the AIM software (free) to send their messages (also free). That may limit consumer choice, but AOL is keen to do deals, and Apple has just unveiled iChat software that can replace AOL's client software on Macs. However, companies that won't play by AOL's rules, such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Odigo and Trillian, have had messages blocked.

This has infuriated users and turned Trillian's authors, Scott Werndorfer and Kevin Kurtz, into folk heroes. They recognised that users did not want to download separate messaging programs to send IMs to people using AIM, ICQ, Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo Messenger or the internet's sys tem, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), so they created Trillian to work with all of them. It's convenient, it's free and it isn't even adware. Users seem to love it. AOL doesn't love it, because its users are typing their AIM names and passwords into someone else's software, which it says could compromise security.

Also, since Trillian (Cerulean Studios) does not provide its own servers and network, critics say it is getting a free ride. Werndorfer says: "We view ourselves as a bridge solution to the ultimate goal of server-based interoperability, [which] will require more technical work and more inter-company collaboration before it becomes a reality. In the meantime, products like Trillian help consumers combine the IM services now."

But Rob Batchelder, a research director with Gartner in the US, says bluntly: "Trillian has no right to send its traffic over AOL's network without AOL's permission, and unpleasant as it may be, it's perfectly within AOL's rights to block them. They've built a large network, which costs money to run and, quite legitimately, they don't feel compelled to share that asset with their competitors. Trillian is trying to get something for nothing."

Batchelder, who used to run an ISP, also supports AOL's position on server-to-server connections which, he says, have fundamental problems. "If you stick gateways in the middle of a network, you degrade its performance so that in some instances, instant messaging becomes no better than email. Gartner's position is that gateways probably are not the solution to interoperability."

Gateways are a way of connecting incompatible networks by translating between their different sets of protocols. It wouldn't be such a problem if almost everyone used the same protocols, and standards are coming into use. The best known are the Internet Engineering Task Force's SIP (Session Internet Protocol), widely used by phone companies, and Simple (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leverage). Microsoft has contributed to the Simple standard, and has based the Windows Messenger built into Windows XP on SIP.

Unfortunately, this was the type of gateway AOL prototyped to test interoperability with IBM's Sametime system, and now regards as unsatisfactory. Although it may look like a proprietary supplier balking at standards, AOL does have a point. Derek Atkins, president of IHTFP Consulting and co-chair of the IETF's Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol working group, told me that the group still needed "closure" on some issues, including security, and that while it could provide interoperability if everyone used it, not everyone believed in the SIP model.

The IETF's IM "design contest" had failed to come up with a single standard, he said, and efforts had been split into three subgroups: Simple, Apex (Application Exchange Core) and Prim (Presence and Instant Messaging protocol).

"That's one of the great things about the IETF," he quipped, "there are so many standards to choose from." But if you can't connect your client software to AOL's network, and you can't connect your network to AOL's network, that just leaves AOL dominating the market. When IM was mostly teenagers chatting, hardly anyone cared about that. Things are different now the market is exploding - Gartner reckons IM will be bigger than email - and people think there could be money in it.

First, IM is penetrating the business market, and companies need much more sophisticated systems than AOL provides. For example, traders discussing share purchases want their messages encrypted so they cannot be read if intercepted. They want messages logged to provide audit trails. And, sometimes, they want to run their own servers rather than use AOL's.

If IM offers these benefits, businesses should be willing to pay for them. Second, IM could replace SMS once mobile phones are connected to the net either by GPRS or third generation (3G) systems. SMS is not instant - it is a store-and-forward system subject to arbitrary delays - and does not have IM's versatility. Smart phones based on computer industry operating systems from Symbian (Psion), Palm and Microsoft will have no problems supporting SIP, which can handle text, HTML, voice and video messaging. And phone users, unlike net users, are used to paying for things.

Robert Mahowald, research manager with International Data Corporation in the US, says that although AOL has "a huge base of consumer users, about 30% of those are using it in their businesses, and we expect that to grow to 35% next year, before going down." IDC expects it to go down as business-oriented IM systems such as IBM's Lotus Sametime come into wider use. (Sametime was developed by Ubique, an Israeli company that Lotus bought from AOL.)

This gives AOL a limited window of opportunity to make an impact on the business market, probably by partnering with application providers. This is just the market Microsoft is targeting with its .Net system, which includes Windows Messenger.

The two-pronged attack involves making it easy for developers to use IM when they build applications, and building IM into Windows XP so developers know users will have access to the applications they build.

Integrated IM then becomes part of internet phone systems, online technical support, gaming, file-sharing, white-boarding, video-conferencing, and broadband web services.

Software developers are free to write for Windows Messenger or AOL or both, so Microsoft's strategy is to make it easier for them to write more exciting applications for Windows Messenger. Users will follow.

With Microsoft and AOL already competing in portals (Microsoft has MSN) and browsers (AOL owns Netscape), instant messaging looks like another battle between Tweedledum and Tweedledee over a nice new rattle. But there are alternatives emerging from the free software movement based around GNU/Linux, and one that has come to the fore over the past year is a peer-to-peer system called Jabber.

Peter Saint-Andre, executive directory of the Jabber Software Foundation, says: "A lot of people don't really want their identity to be wrapped up in AOL or MSN, and part of what Jabber does is that you can run your own server for your own community. It's a grassroots, bottom-up approach, like the weblogging phenomenon."

Jabber is an open source IM platform based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), which is also the foundation for Microsoft's .Net. Jabber Instant Messenger clients can, like Trillian, communicate with other services including AIM, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, Microsoft Messenger, IRC, and SMTP (ie email). Because it's a distributed, instead of a centralised, system, Saint-Andre says it can be hard to block.

"AOL has tried to shut down some of the bigger Jabber services, but there are other Jabber servers that still communicate. We don't really have a problem with that. If they don't want to be open, we're not going to force them."

The appeal for big companies is that they can buy a commercial Jabber server to run their own IM service. Examples include giant phone companies such as BellSouth and France Telecom, and the Walt Disney Internet Group, which uses Inc's server software to run its Go Messenger service. Because they have access to source code, companies can also integrate Jabber with their applications. "This is what companies respond to," says IDC's Mahowald.

"I think Jabber's doing the right thing." What Jabber lacks is the sort of giant database that AOL runs to provide what's known as "presence". In a real-time system, users need to be online at the same time. When you sign on to AIM, for example, the database picks up your internet (IP) address, and lets all the friends on your buddy list know you are online. They see your user name pop up and a door opens, complete with sound effects.

Jabber doesn't have a huge database and network to provide presence, but Saint-Andre reckons they are not needed. "No one holds all that information for email," he says. They use the net's Domain Name System that turns numbers ( into names ( Rather than build the equivalent of the DNS namespace for instant messaging, why not use the one we already have?

"Your IM address could be the same as your email address," says Saint-Andre. "We already have a system, it's just unfortunate that the IM world doesn't use it!" But Gartner's Batchelder argues that DNS is essentially static, not a real-time presence system. The IETF, he says, has "abysmally failed to recognise that presence is as fundamental to the operation of the internet as is DNS.

Presence is the anti-DNS, and ought to be incorporated into the internet as a foundation technology. What you've got is a bunch of private companies with their own interests trying to create it, and it's not working. It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck."

So at the moment we have a stand-off between the usual parties: a dominant proprietary supplier, a group of rivals trying to displace it by backing an IETF standard, and a grassroots, peer-to-peer approach that could subvert both. As with early phone networks and incompatible email systems, the battle should lead eventually to the sort of interoperable network users want.

But "how you get there from here is still very much a muddle," says Batchelder. "In the long run, it's going to be very exciting, but the short run, it's anarchy. It's a street riot."

Where to start

Yahoo Messenger:
Microsoft Messenger:


Ps. For anyone hip enough to use Jabber, my contact is [email protected]. :)

Buy on

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