AOL extends AIM's enteprise interoperability

America Online Inc. is launching a program to make its AIM and ICQ instant messaging services interoperable with enterprise instant messaging (IM) systems from other vendors, AOL plans to announce Thursday.

Through the Enterprise Federation Partner (EFP) program, AOL wants to make it possible for users of various enterprise IM systems to add AIM and ICQ users to their IM contact lists and vice versa, and allow them to exchange messages.

"The biggest thing about this announcement is that you're starting to see true interoperability in the business environment. Interoperability is one of the sticking points for the growth of instant messaging in the enterprise. Right now you have little islands of instant messaging that can't communicate with each other very well," said industry analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research Inc. "This is a major step forward because it's starting to deal with a lot of the real business grade IM systems out there and tying them together."

Along with the launch of the EFP program, AOL is announcing four partners whose enterprise IM systems will interoperate with AIM and ICQ: Antepo Inc., Jabber Inc., Omnipod Inc. and Parlano Inc. Notably absent from the program so far is IBM Corp., whose Lotus Sametime is a major enterprise IM system, which several years ago interoperated with AIM but not anymore.

Until now, the most common way to link AIM with enterprise IM systems has been through third-party gateway software, workarounds which can be complicated to implement and sometimes yield unreliable performance.

This has been the case at Morris Communications Co. LLC, which uses Antepo's OPN system as its enterprise IM platform. To link Antepo's OPN with the public IM networks, the company uses gateway software, said Ray Parish, systems architect at Morris Communications. But it's not an ideal fix because when the configuration of one of the public IM networks is tweaked, the link with Antepo's OPN gets knocked out until the gateway software also gets adjusted, he said.

Parish, who has been beta testing the AIM link with Antepo's OPN, is thrilled that the two vendors are working together to create a solid link between their systems. "With the federated solution we're assured that when AOL makes a change (to AIM), we'll still be able to connect," Parish said, adding that the testing has been going very well. Morris Communications, a publishing company based in Augusta, Georgia, has about 3,000 Antepo OPN users, 500 of which connect with AIM users via the existing gateway.

At the heart of the interoperability problem is the variety of protocols employed by IM vendors, which makes it at worst impossible and at best difficult for their systems to interoperate. Until the IM market settles on one standard, the federated approach AOL is taking with this program is the next best thing in the business sector, Osterman said.

There is a growing need for interoperability among IM users, particularly in the business segment. The reason for this is that many companies that use enterprise IM systems internally need to let their users communicate with clients and partners who use a public IM network, such as AIM. "On the business side you have a built-in incentive to provide interoperability because if IM System A can talk to IM System B then they're both more valuable," Osterman said.

"We have a lot of customers who have a requirement for accessing the AIM network for business purposes," said Paul Guerin, Jabber's chief executive officer. Jabber plans to offer its customers this AIM connectivity in June as an optional subscription service, Guerin said.

AIM is the largest of the free, public IM networks aimed at individual users, and AOL estimates about 14 million people use it for work. The two other major public IM networks are Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger and Yahoo Inc.'s Yahoo Messenger. These networks don't interoperate with one another.

Steps have been taken in the past to create interoperability among disparate IM systems. For example, Microsoft created links between its enterprise IM system Live Communications Server (LCS) and the AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger networks. AOL, in addition to its hook up with Microsoft's LCS, built a bridge with Reuters Group PLC's IM system.

Partners participating in the new EFP program pay AOL an annual royalty for every one of their customers' end users that is allowed to connect to AIM, said Brian Curry, AOL's vice president of premium and subscription services. The annual fee lets the users communicate with as many AIM users and send as many messages as they like, he said.

AOL plans to expand this new EFP program by allowing other IM functionality to be shared across systems, beyond text messaging, Curry said.

Another way in which AOL plans to extend EFP is through a service that would enable interoperability among EFP partner systems, not just between the partners and AIM, Curry said. Thus, this service, which AOL is now testing, would be a clearinghouse in which instant messages from multiple enterprise systems would have their protocols translated and would be routed, thus allowing, for example, a Jabber user to exchange messages with an Antepo user, Curry said.

For Antepo, the key aspect of the EFP program is that it makes the link between its OPN system and AIM simple to deploy and secure, said Maxime Seguineau, Antepo's chairman and chief executive officer.

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