After struggling for two years to define requirements for an instant messaging standard, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has asked participants to submit full-blown protocol designs by June 15. This unusual move is meant to jump-start the standardisation process, which has been bogged down by bickering over technical details.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for the federal government to break America Online's stranglehold on the instant messaging market. Last week, two AOL competitors, Tribal Voice and iCast, accused AOL of monopolistic behavior, and asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open up the AOL Instant Messenger system to competitors as part of the approval process for AOL's merger with media giant Time Warner.
Both the regulatory and technical developments are good news for corporate users, who need interoperability between instant messaging systems in order to roll out large-scale applications.
"Instant messaging without interoperability is the equivalent of trying to listen to your favorite FM station with an AM receiver - it just isn't going to work," says Randy Vaughn, a professor of information systems at Baylor University in Texas. Vaughn uses Tribal Voice's PowWow instant messaging system to chat with his students and to supplement his office hours.
John Dial, a senior product developer with BMC Software, uses Activerse's Ding software (now owned by Tribal Voice) to communicate with members of his software development team working in remote offices. Dial says BMC's usage would soar if Ding were interoperable with AOL Instant Messenger.
"I've been pushing Ding for a while to our support organization as a really nice private way to hook up to our customers," Dial says. "It would be a major boost if the systems were compatible."
The best bet for interoperability is the IETF's Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP), which aims to define a standard way of detecting other users online and communicating with them in real time. The IMPP working group recently finished defining design goals and protocol requirements, but progress has been slow.
At its meeting in Australia in March, IETF leaders took the unprecedented step of putting the working group in "dormant" mode, and halted future meetings until individuals or small groups submit complete protocols. IETF leaders will analyse the proposed protocols and reactivate the working group when it has something concrete to debate.
"I think this is going to speed things up a lot," says Dave Marvit, an internet strategy consultant with Fujitsu Labs of America and a co-chair of the IMPP working group. "Inviting actual proposals in gives us some clay to work with that we can shape."
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher has submitted one protocol, and developers from Microsoft and Tribal Voice are working on alternatives. IETF leaders expect to have several proposals by the June 15 deadline and will resume work later this summer.
"We have been working on interoperability with other vendors, including Microsoft, AT&T, Lotus Development and Fujitsu, for a long time," says Steve Sigler, vice president of corporate development at Tribal Voice. "The business customers want interoperable products, and they're going to get them sooner or later."
In addition to working on standards, instant messaging vendors are going to Washington to try to solve their problem of AOL blocking traffic from rival instant messaging systems. With 120 million users of its AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ products, AOL accounts for 90% of the instant messaging market.
For months, AOL has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Microsoft, AT&T and Tribal Voice over instant messaging interoperability. These companies have figured out a way to send instant messages to AOL users, and then hours later AOL closes down these paths. The spurned companies see AOL's planned merger with Time-Warner as an opportunity to get the government to intervene on their behalf.
"We see instant messaging as the next wave of personal communications . . . and right now the market is being stifled by AOL," Sigler says. "What the FCC filing is meant to do is raise the awareness for agencies reviewing the AOL/Time-Warner merger that AOL . . . is demonstrating anticompetitive, monopolistic behavior."
Although it is blocking traffic from consumer-oriented instant messaging services, AOL has signed licensing deals with Lotus, Novell and FaceTime Communications aimed at corporate applications. Lotus recently sold its Sametime offering to United Airlines, which plans to roll out the instant messaging software to 135,000 employees, including pilots and gate agents. Similarly, Compaq's sales representatives use FaceTime's software to provide online assistance to customers making purchases from the website.
"As large business use comes into play here, we're going to have more and more pressure to go to open standards," says Neil Starkey, chief technical officer of Sametime and an IETF participant.
Starkey says the trickiest part of designing an instant messaging standard is the security and authentication component rather than the interoperability issues that get all the attention.
"We need to support communication between communities while protecting large companies' confidential directory information," Starkey says. "That's what it takes to make this technology fit for business."