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Opinion: AOL/Microsoft Real-Time Messaging Debate

by CHRIS NELSON | The AOL/MSN Messenger debate has been raging in the Open Source community and in the computer press recently. Microsoft wants access to AOL's Instant Messenger protocol and user base, and AOL has denied them access, altering their network to block MSN Messenger users. Microsoft has cried foul, and attempted workarounds, only to be routinely blocked by AOL. Microsoft got together with other Instant Messenger wannabes and sent this letter to AOL.

Off the bat, I don't consider this an Open Source or standards issue. It'll become a standards issue later, when a standard appears. Until then, it's an issue of competing proprietary protocols, of user poaching, and of piggy-backing on proprietary networks. As the letter states, AOL does indeed have an impressive user base both with Instant Messenger and ICQ. But the letter goes on to say, essentially, "you have a large user-base, and now we want it, and you should give it to us."

Why should they get it? AOL has invested money in not only the AOL client and protocol, but in the infrastructure that allows millions of messages to be sent and received properly every day. In addition to that, AOL receives ad revenues from the small ad space at the top of their "buddy list". Every AOL Instant Messenger client has it. If they allow competing companies access to their network without utilizing the ad space, they lose revenue. Now, AOL had made exceptions for people wanting to port the client to other platforms - it was a way to increase their user-base (and also get some good PR in the Open Source community). But when you're competing head on against companies like Microsoft and Yahoo who want nothing more than to steal your user base and revenues (which wasn't the case with apps like a Linux port of the client), AOL had no choice other than to play hardball.

Answer this: If Microsoft (and the other groups associated with the letter) were truly concerned about standards at this point, why did they put out a client at all? And why are they trying desperately to interoperate with AOL's userbase? Why not just wait until the standard is completed, and implement it? Why are they not offering up their own proprietary protocols for interoperability? The answer is that they want AOL's users, at AOL's expense. And they feel that they have a way of inciting the community against AOL by shouting "STANDARDS!" at the top of their lungs.

Don't be fooled. This is not an issue regarding Open Source, or standards compliance, or anything of the sort. It is solely about commercial entities posturing in hopes of driving a rival out of its top seat in the Real-Time messaging market.

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