Unified messaging not so unified

Was AOL deliberately missed off the invite list?

This week saw the creation of a new Instant Messaging (IM) consortium, which promises to remove the barriers between rival networks and so create one unified messaging service. The world's biggest IM player was, however, not invited to the party.

The IMUnified alliance consists of Prodigy, Microsoft MSN, Yahoo!, Excite@home, Icast, AT&T, Odigo, Phone.com and Tribal Voice, and it plans to agree common specifications by the end of August. When implemented, users of the new network will be able to send instant messages any other network user. At the moment, Internet users can only send instant messages to friends on the same operator.

The alliance claims to have been set up entirely in the interest of the consumer.

However, ZDNet has discovered that the IMUnified body did not inform Internet giant AOL of its plans. AOL says it was unaware of the alliance until ZDNet called its office for comment.

Bill Kirkner, chief technology officer for Prodigy Communications - once one of its fiercest rivals in the US -- sent an open letter to AOL in July 1999 urging it to embrace interoperability. He was scathing over AOL's persistent refusal in an interview Tuesday: "It's quite clear that AOL has acted in its own commercial self interest, and has restricted consumer choice." Kirkner did not know why AOL had not been invited to join the alliance.

AOL insists it has never been contacted by the consortium and claims that it has resisted combining its IM service with others because of the increased risk of spam and unsolicited communications. "We have more users on IM than anyone else and there is a potential problem with spam... if we opened up our system it could cause our users problems."

Alliance member Microsoft dismissed AOL's claims, claiming the spam defence was sheer folly. Shereen Meharg, marketing communications manager of Microsoft MSN, echoed told ZDNet: "There's no evidence that IM interoperability will increase the amount of spam sent to users".

Meharg denied that certain companies had been selected or excluded from IMUnified, and stated that the consortium was "self-initiated, and the result of natural progression". She insisted there was no hidden agenda behind AOL's absence, and urged the company to join. "We would welcome AOL, and any other company who embrace open standards in Instant Messaging", she said.

Although Kirkner hopes that AOL will now lower its barriers to interoperability, like the members of the consortium, he is concerned about the future. "I expect AOL to take advantage of the work of other companies, and to reduce any technology to its lowest common denominator. This gives them the greatest control and the opportunity to restrict flexibility."

In Charles Coopers opinion AOL remains within its rights to tell the runners-up in the IM war to take a hike. But the brain trust at America Online may be excused for feeling besieged. Seemingly everybody wants a piece of these guys. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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