AOL/Time Warner merger refuels messaging battle

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The iCast filing zeroes in on four key points: that the instant messaging market requires openness and interoperability to drive innovation; that consumers benefit from being able to choose between products; that AOL claims to advocate open standards but refuses to participate with the industry, that AOL further advocates that instant messaging providers need to be licensed by AOL; and that before approving the merger, the U.S. government should insure that AOL keeps its promise to support open standards.

A separate Tribal Voice brief argues that instant messaging is rapidly becoming an essential communications product for business as well as consumer use, so interoperability is important as more people use messaging. The brief further says that there are no technical or operational obstacles to interoperability. AOL, the document charges, is the only obstacle, refusing to participate in working toward standards even as it professes commitment to open standards.

"A communication product that doesn't talk to other communication products is a boat anchor ... If AT&T brought out a phone that didn't work with Sony and other phones, people wouldn't buy it unless they didn't have a choice. AOL is not giving people a choice," Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group, said.

Besides filing briefs with the FCC, competing vendors also are making their case to the U.S. Senate. Microsoft, Excite@Home, AltaVista, AT&T, Prodigy, and CMGI (the parent company of iCast and Tribal Voice), as well as iCast and Tribal Voice all sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications and the Senate Commerce Committee to raise awareness regarding the lack of progress in reaching an instant messaging standard.

The letter observed that AOL has repeatedly blocked interoperability and has not participated "meaningfully" in IETF efforts to reach a standard. The companies said they aren't taking a position on the AOL-Time Warner merger, but want to ensure that all Internet users can enjoy instant messaging no matter which service provider they choose.

During the fray with Microsoft over instant messaging interoperability with MSN Messenger, AOL said that it had agreements in place with and software companies so that the various instant messaging products will interoperate.

AOL might already have made such strong inroads that the standards debate is, in effect, over.

"AOL, with ICQ and Instant Messenger, has the largest market share. You could argue that they do represent the standard" in instant messaging, Giga's Enderle noted.

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