AOL blocks AT&T's IM client

America Online has fought off an attempt by AT&T to connect its instant messaging users to AOL's popular service

America Online is fighting off the latest attempt from another company to connect users to its popular instant messaging software.

US telecoms giant AT&T took on AOL Wednesday, releasing software that let users of its "IM Here" instant messaging service contact users of AOL's AIM service. But AOL began blocking those attempts Wednesday afternoon, just as it had fought off attempts by Microsoft to connect its messaging client to the AIM service.

AT&T's client uses technology from Tribal Voice, which was recently acquired by CMGI. Tribal Voice has also signed up AltaVista, which will release its own version of Tribal Voice's PowWow client later this winter. Tribal Voice officials said Wednesday that the company plans to release its own client later this year.

"The Internet should allow open, easy and instant online communication among everyone," Ed Chatlos, AT&T WorldNet Service vice president, said Wednesay in a release. "We are giving our members the ability to send messages anytime to anyone from their one-and-only buddy list. The Internet is no place for artificial communications boundaries."

AOL has fiercely fought off attempts to allow other instant messaging services to communicate with its AIM service. AOL dominates the instant messaging field, with more than 80 million users between its AIM and ICQ clients.

That user base is what the other players are trying to tap into, since the most important feature of instant messaging programs is the connection to other users. AOL had opened the door to such attempts when it released protocols that were intended to be used by developers of Unix software. But Microsoft and others used those protocols, which have since been removed from AOL's Web site, to access the AIM client.

Microsoft recently gave up attempting to connect to AOL after AOL repeatedly blocked its MSN Messenger service.

Beth Nagengast, instant messaging product manager for Tribal Voice, said that her company used the published protocols to establish its connections to AOL. She said her company had tried to contact AOL regarding the connection but was unsuccessful.

AOL officials did not return repeated phone calls.

"We're not sure what AOL's going to do. We have a team of engineers ready to look at anything (that happens)," Nagengast said Wednesday. "We've had several public betas and up to this point, AOL has not blocked the product."

AT&T said its new service will also be able to communicate with Microsoft's product. Microsoft has opened up its protocols to other companies, including PeopleLink and Tribal Voice.

AT&T has had its own battles with openness. The telco/communications giant on Tuesday agreed to allow other Internet service providers to lease its cable television lines. That agreement was signed with AT&T under pressure from state regulators.

AOL has argued that attempts to interoperate with its service without its permission is the equivalent of hacking. AOL has licensed its AIM software to some sites, including Lycos, whose largest shareholder is CMGI. "We were little Tribal Voice (before), but when you have the No. 2 ISP (AT&T) and AltaVista, one of the top five search sites, that classification changed. This (CMGI deal) even furthers that," Nagengast said.

The Internet Engineering Task Force currently has a working group developing such a protocol. AOL has said that it would work with that group, one of whose co-chairs is an employee at AT&T Labs.

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