AOL Rivals Unite to Force Open Instant Messaging

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the U.S. telecommunications industry, will hold a hearing on this issue -- as well as others -- as it reviews the proposed merger between AOL and Time Warner. Last month, the FCC asked AOL for details about its IM service.

According to a statement issued Tuesday, the group's goal is to allow users of all IM services to be able to chat live with one another over the Internet. By the end of next month, IMUnified said, it will publicly release a set of specifications that will link the networks of its members, allowing users of varying services to send instant messages to one another.

"Internet users want to exchange instant messages with each other, regardless of which service they use," said Brian Park, senior producer at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Yahoo, a founding member of IMUnified. "We welcome participation of other interested IM companies who share the vision of interoperability based on open standards and encourage them to join our efforts."

Its rivals contend that AOL - which controls 90 percent of the IM market, according to an iCast estimate - has continued to block users of other services from communicating with its members.

AOL officials couldn't be reached for comment. In the past, AOL has cited security and the privacy of its users and its system for its decision to block users of competing IM services.

Mark Levitt, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, said the question is whether it is in AOL's best interest to bow to pressure from this group.

"The answer is no, it wouldn't be in its best interest because this group is trying to grab market share [from AOL]," Levitt said.

Ultimately, Levitt said, AOL will most likely allow interoperability, but only when doing so is in its best interest.

Last month, AOL submitted a plan to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) proposing a standards protocol for instant messaging. Last week, a group of 16 AOL competitors, including iCast, Tribal Voice, MSN, Qualcomm and Odigo, released a white paper criticizing AOL's IETF submission saying it is neither a "meaningful, nor legitimate" protocol proposal. In a statement, the group said there was no evidence that AOL users will be at risk if an interoperability standard is implemented.

The companies also complained that AOL's submission lacked specific details of protocols that could be used to achieve interoperability and didn't contain a timetable for implementing an interoperability standard.

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