AOL/Time Warner merger refuels messaging battle

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The standards issue has become more important in recent months because instant messaging has gone beyond fun chats between online buddies and loved ones to gaining widespread business use, particularly for companies with remote offices, telecommuting employees, and far-flung customers and partners. Because of such developments, AOL critics contend, interoperability between rival products is all the more important.

"The way AOL is behaving is disastrous for any new company online. It has terrible consequences for the industry, terrible consequences for creativity, terrible consequences for innovation, terrible consequences for consumers, and terrible consequences for the Internet," iCast's Heffernan said.

The blocking earlier this month of ABC by Time Warner cable systems raised further concerns about the merger and about Time Warner's tactics, leading Disney, which owns ABC, to ask federal regulators to place limits on the merged company. Blocking ABC denied cable customers access to one of the major U.S. non-cable broadcasting networks during an all-important ratings "sweeps" period when networks beef up theirr programming to lure viewers and advertisers.

"That was a classic example [of misusing] market dominance," Heffernan said of Time Warner's behavior regarding ABC, which might not bode well for how the company might act under a merger. Even under the pending AOL merger microscope, Time Warner blocked a competitor.

"If AOL feels like it can get away with [blocking access], it will. AOL started blocking anyone trying to interoperate. Even with so much public scrutiny, they abuse their position," Heffernan said.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must approve the AOL-Time Warner merger before it can be completed -- a process expected to be finalized by the end of the year. But those critical of AOL's tactics have filed comments with the FCC, urging the agency to deny the merger, which rival instant-messaging vendors think will strike a blow to interoperability if approved.

Tribal Voice and iCast recently sent about 2,000 consumer petitions to the FCC demanding that AOL open its IM services and make its products interoperable with those of other companies. Both companies also submitted briefs to the FCC saying that the agency should ensure that AOL honors its promise to support instant messaging standards and open communication. In addition, iCast sponsors freeIM.org, a Web site dedicated to instant messaging programs that embrace an open protocol standard.

An iCast spokesman said the point of the briefs isn't to say that AOL and Time Warner should not merge, but that if the merger is approved, the company should be forced to behave responsibly.

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