Jesse Berst: What MS and AOL are really fighting about

When two dogs fight over a bone, they're actually fighting over much more. Over territory, dominance, hierarchy. Over who's going to lead the pack.

In the same way, the instant messaging (IM) tussle between Microsoft and America Online may seem trivial. Particularly if you don't use IM. In reality, the nipping and growling is about a much larger and more important issue -- a giant new market that's just coming into being.

An IM program alerts you when a friend is online; then you can type a message that will pop up on his screen instantaneously. AOL has long been the leader in this space and claims its users now send more than 430 million instant messages a day. Last month Microsoft set off a nasty fight by introducing IM software that interoperates with AOL's proprietary software. AOL claimed what Microsoft did was tantamount to hacking its servers; Microsoft flamed AOL for not opening up its code.

The bickering is really about the future, because instant messaging could become the backbone for a huge range of new services on a wide range of new platforms. Consider how instant, real-time communication could combine elements of services that exist today in various forms, such as:

  • Conference calling

  • Stock alerts

  • Paging

  • Security alerts

  • Cell phones

  • Emergency notification

  • Intercom

  • Two-way and CB radio

  • Chat boards

  • Inventory alerts

  • Walkie-talkie

    Then consider all the places these combined services might appear:

    • Desktop computers

    • Set-top boxes and Net TVs

    • Pagers

    • Wireless handhelds

    • Smart phones

    • Future Internet appliances

      IM will eventually expand into all of these platforms and functions. Given that, who do you root for? Both dogs are scruffy and mean. But do you really want AOL telling you who you can talk to and who you can't? Imagine if you could only talk to BT phone customers if you also bought one of BT's proprietary telephones.

      We should root for whichever company promotes the most open solution. And though Microsoft is usually in the dog house when it comes to open standards, in this current fight, Microsoft is in the right.

      Do you agree? Disagree? Tell the Mailroom. AOL and Microsoft are both mean as junkyard dogs. But in this case, barking about open standards wins a pat on the head.

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