IM - a not-so-instant revolution

If you listen to its boosters, instant messaging is set to revolutionise communications and business. But can it overcome the AOL factor?

Instant messaging, once considered a toy for teenagers, could be the next killer business app -- provided it overcomes what industry insiders say is the AOL stumbling block.

The latest IM technologies will be on display at the Instant Messaging 2000 show in Boston next Tuesday, including combinations of text with voice and video technology. In the lead-up to the conference, versions of the technology designed for wireless devices have been popping up, work on an official standard has been making serious headway, and a version of IM has gone open source.

"It's fundamentally a new form of communication that's happening over the Internet worldwide," said Jeremie Miller, founder of Jabber.org, an organisation working to produce an open-source, XML-based instant messaging platform.

That sort of hyperbole is common to those developing the technology. Developers envision a day when IM protocols envelop every sort of communication.

"Instant messaging is today where email was five years ago," said Ross Bagully, CEO of IM firm Tribal Voice . "It's not just, 'Gee, I want to send an IM and see what they're doing.' It's the ability to transmit files, send pictures and full-motion video, the ability to send alerts and information and then act on that information.

"Say I'm flying to Denver," Bagully continued. "I'll get an IM -- maybe on my computer, maybe on my cell phone, maybe on my Palm Pilot or even my refrigerator, saying 'Your flight is going to be 3 hours late, and by the way, here's four other flights. If you want to take one, click here.'"

But Bagully and others see a stumbling block in that vision of the future: America Online.

AOL, which has 120 million users of its instant messaging products and essentially dominates the market, has so far decided to go it alone. AOL will not attend the Instant Messaging 2000 show next week and has staunchly resisted attempts from third-party companies to integrate their software with AOL's popular Instant Messenger software.

Several firms, including Tribal Voice, Microsoft, Odigo and Jabber.com, have tried to develop platforms that work with the AOL Instant Messenger client and AOL's ICQ service, but the company has so far blocked them all.

Tribal Voice and iCast, which are both owned by CMGI, have filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission regarding AOL's refusal to open its protocols.

AOL has said it will work with the group developing a standard for the Internet Engineering Task Force, and it has agreed to licence its technology to a few vendors. But, by and large, the company has not been willing to communicate with rivals to further the technology's development. AOL would not comment further on the issue for this story.

America Online is a bully. Microsoft showed us bullies don't reform unless they're forced to. Jesse Berst doesn't want to wait 20 years for the government to figure out what we already know: That AOL is bad for Internet consumers. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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