AOL locks out competing chat services

"We don't want to chat," appears to be the latest instant message America Online is sending to Microsoft and Yahoo. Evidently, Microsoft's MSN portal and Yahoo are off AOL's buddies list when it comes to AOL's enormously popular Instant Messenger service.

Both Yahoo and MSN this week released versions of their instant messenger programs that could interact with the estimated 25 million users of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Now Yahoo has confirmed that users of its beta Yahoo Messenger program, released last Thursday, can no longer chat with AIM users. Only a day-old and Microsoft's MSN Messenger was also locked out of AIM, according Microsoft representatives.

AOL changed its instant messaging protocol early Friday morning so that MSN and Yahoo Messenger users couldn't access AIM.

AOL spokesperson Ann Brackbill is adamant that AOL considered MSN's and Yahoo's access to AIM a breach of security and privacy akin to hacking.

As for AOL's support for open standards for instant messaging, Brackbill says, "Unauthorised access to our network is completely different from agreeing on open standards."

Brackbill says AOL hasn't ruled out taking legal action against Microsoft and Yahoo.

Illicit entry?

At the crux of the dispute is the procedure Yahoo and MSN Messenger users have to follow to interact with AIM users. To give their users access to AOL's messaging service, both competing services require their users to log on to AIM through their Yahoo or MSN messaging client. This involves obtaining an AIM account and entering the user name and password for that account.

MSN and Yahoo maintain that they never collect user names and passwords. The vendors say they simply facilitate a third-party log-on to AIM to establish interoperability between clients.

AOL strongly disapproves of Microsoft's and Yahoo's procedures. On Thursday, AOL accused MSN and Yahoo of breaking the "cardinal rule of the Internet" by asking users to divulge their AOL screen name and password. AOL likened MSN and Yahoo to hackers for requesting this type of information from its users.

Attempts to send messages from Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger to AOL Instant Messenger users now result in an "incorrect password/login" error.

Competitive compatibility

In a prepared statement, Microsoft called the situation contrary to users' wishes.

"It is unfortunate that AOL chose to purposely disable the interoperability between the two services -- a solution consumers have clearly been asking for," Microsoft said. "It is clear that AOL is more focused on its proprietary hold on the instant messaging space than [on] what is right for consumers. Microsoft is still committed to providing the interoperability that consumers are demanding via an open-standards approach."

No open standards currently exist, so only people who use the same messaging software can chat online.

The spat among the portal powerhouses has more to do with AOL's fear that Microsoft and Yahoo will undermine its dominance of instant messaging than with security concerns, analysts say. And, they say, it underscores the need for open standards for instant messaging, which would make chatting online as easy as using a telephone.

Representatives of the Internet Engineering Task Force, which is developing open messaging standards, liken the state of instant messaging today to a world in which telephones could make calls only to people using the same phone service.

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Tom Spring

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