AOL near release of interoperable instant messaging

America Online Inc. said it's close to releasing an interoperable version of its instant messenger (IM) and ICQ real-time chat services.

The Internet service provider filed a status report with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week, explaining why its plan to connect users of AOL's instant messenger with other company's IM systems is still in internal testing.

In an 11-page letter to the FCC, AOL said it had begun testing server-to-sever interoperability, and that it's on track to test its instant messaging system with other services by the end of the summer. The company also said it's preparing an interoperatability agreement with a leading technology company.

"AOL publicly stated last July that it anticipated that it would require approximately one year to develop a server-to-server protocol, to be followed by a period of time to test and refine its interoperability solution," the letter said. "Consistent with this commitment, AOL has largely completed its development of the necessary technology, has recently begun internal testing of that technology and remains on schedule to begin testing server-to-server interoperability with a leading technology company later this summer."

Among its conditions in approving AOL's merger with TIme Warner, the FCC required the company to open its dominant AOL instant messaging (AIM) service so users of other providers, such as Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger and Yahoo Inc.'s Yahoo Messenger, can chat with AIM and ICQ users. Most chat services, including AIM, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger, are free, even to users who aren't customers of the companies' Internet service provider offerings.

The FCC said IM has the potential to be a widely used means of communication, and that no company should have a monopoly on access to that medium. With the merger of AOL and Time Warner Inc. last year, AOL had the potential to get its instant messaging service to all of Time Warner's cable subscribers.

Therefore, the FCC said, AOL must allow others to use Time Warner's installed base of cable infrastructure or be interoperable with other services before it can be carried over Time Warner's lines. AOL also may not add features such as live streaming video to its service until it complies with the FCC order.

AOL has previously refused to open its member list to other services, citing security and privacy concerns. Once a secure protocol for sharing user directories can be established, the company said it will open its service to other instant messaging providers.

Many analysts agree, however, that each IM provider is fighting for customer share in the consumer and corporate messaging infrastructure. Microsoft has already announced it will embed a slightly altered version of MSN Messenger in its Windows XP release this October. The software maker has already embeded MSN Messenger in the latest versions of its corporate messaging product Exchange and Outlook.

While AOL is working on interoperability, its competitors, through the group IMUnified and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are also trying to establish interoperability protocols.

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Jennifer DiSabatino

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