Microsoft, Yahoo among others set to link IM services

Yahoo and Microsoft are two of a number of high-profile vendors in IMUnified -- a recently formed coalition trying to develop open standards-based interoperability for instant messaging.

IMUnified plans to deliver a new IM protocol for the delivery of text and the exchange of buddy lists by the first quarter of this year, according to some of its members. Other companies in the group include AT&T., Excite@Home, Odigo and Prodigy Communications.

"All of the founding members of IMUnified have committed to functional interoperability," said Estela Mendoza, an IMUnified spokeswoman. "The protocol has been developed, and we are very close to the next step."

Some of the members in IMUnified, however, claim the new protocol could arrive sooner rather than later, citing contractual coordination between the companies as the biggest obstacle to timely delivery.

"The new protocol works and is basically ready," said Alex Diamandis, vice president of marketing at instant messaging company Odigo. "There are just some service-level agreements that we need to finalise. It works, it's done, we just need to get everybody on board."

All of the members in IMUnified plan to adopt the new protocol once all agreements are finalized, according to Diamandis.

Yahoo confirmed it would add the interoperability features adopted by IMUnified in the near future to its IM software, according to a Yahoo spokeswoman. Microsoft did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

IMUnified will try to solve some of the problems users face when using IM applications. AOL dominates the IM sphere but has been reluctant to offer interoperability with other short-text delivery systems. This forces users to set up numerous accounts with differing information if they wish to communicate with others who use a different service. AOL representatives have claimed they want to ensure a user's privacy and security before making their systems interoperable with others.

IMUnified voiced its complaints against AOL during US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearings on the merger between AOL and media giant Time Warner. In approving the merger last month, the FCC ordered AOL to comply with several IM checks.

In setting the conditions that apply to IM, the FCC was concerned that AOL Time Warner could use Time Warner's cable networks to extend its current dominance in text-based IM into new "advanced" IM services that will include multimedia components such as video conferencing.

The FCC will allow two ways for AOL Time Warner to comply with the conditions. It must either back an industry-wide standard on "server-to-server interoperability" or enter into contracts with IM competitors. If it chooses the latter course of action, AOL Time Warner must have entered into at least one such contract at the time it enters the advanced IM business, followed by two more contracts with rivals 180 days later. This is designed to ensure there are at least three other players in the advanced IM market.

Some analysts doubt both AOL's privacy and security claims as well as whether that the company can continue to hold onto its market share lead -- interoperable or not. "Instant messaging will be incredibly widely used," said David Ferris, president of market research firm Ferris Research. "In the long term, only a minority of people will use AOL."

While an estimated 80 per cent of IM users are on either AIM or ICQ, Ferris claims the heavy adoption of IM services will tear away at the company's market share. In addition, Ferris has no doubt that AOL will "cave in" to the interoperability demands of other IM vendors.

As for AOL's security and privacy claims, "I think those are red herrings," Ferris said. "The reason for AOL preferring isolation is because they see it (as being) in their business interests."

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Ashlee Vance

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