"It raises significant and serious privacy and security issues," said Ann Brackbill, senior vice president for communications at AOL. "Microsoft is violating the cardinal rule of the Internet by asking AOL Instant Messenger users for their passwords and screen names. And its unauthorised access of the AOL namespace is akin to hacking."
Microsoft brushed off such claims, saying it wasn't hijacking AOL technology. "We did not steal it," said Deanna Sanford, lead product manager at Microsoft. Sanford said Microsoft was motivated by meeting a consumer need, in making instant messaging more interoperable. She could not say when Microsoft and AOL had last had contact about instant messaging. Microsoft's MSN Messenger, announced today, will let users send notes and messages to users of AOL's Instant Messenger program and other popular programs, including Microsoft's own Web-based, Hotmail e-mail system.
AOL dominates the instant messaging market, with both its AOL program and ICQ, the service offered by Mirabilis, which AOL acquired last year. Together, the two programs have 63 million registered users, according to AOL.
Brackbill would not say what, if any, action AOL would take regarding the Microsoft move.
MSN Messenger is available now. Microsoft is billing this as putting it ahead of competitors such as AOL. "We've taken the lead in integrating these services," Sanford said. She billed the Messenger service as the first step in developing a communications strategy for MSN overall, which would include personalising e-mail services.
Along these lines, Microsoft noted that it is working with a group of companies to develop a set of standards for instant messaging. AOL was not listed among those companies. The potential standard, Instant Messaging Presence Protocol, has been applied for with the Internet Engineering Task Force. Sanford also noted that the MSN Messenger client was only 312Kb, making it small enough that it could be used in handheld devices.
Microsoft isn't the only company going after AOL's huge instant messaging base. Yahoo! today released a beta version of its buddy list service -- renamed Yahoo Messenger -- with several new features, including the ability to contact AOL users. "This has been in the works for a while. Basically our goal all along a has been to open up Yahoo Messenger to the largest community as possible," said Brian Park, senior producer of Yahoo Messenger. "When we can add on other communities out there it makes instant messaging exponentially more powerful."
Park said Yahoo! was able to connect with AOL's service because AOL publicly published its protocols. He said the company did not discuss its plans with AOL beforehand.
While Microsoft's move may be aimed at taking users away from AOL, the emergence of multiple compatible buddy lists programs should help the entire market grow, said Jerry Michalski, president and founder of San Francisco-based technology consulting firm Sociate. "This is one of the software categories that will change the world, instead of just coming and going like 'push' did," he said. "Some degree of interoperability is not just desirable but necessary. These buddy lists I believe are the future of communications -- 10 years from now when you make a call, it will pop up on the screen of my computer or phone or TV."
Michalski said that the company will have two options -- to fight back against Microsoft and the others, or to work with them. "It's really hard to read. I wish they would [work with the other companies] but I'm not sure they will," he said.
Yahoo!'s Park said: "As soon as there is an effort that includes all the major players, we would be interested in working with that group." AOL does have plans to beef up its own services. Its ICQ unit said today that it is working on a free e-mail program for ICQ users, and has already signed up 400,000 users. The company did not say how soon the service, developed with Critical Path, would be ready.
ZDNN's Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this story.