AOL builds messenger allies

America Online has found more allies in its instant messaging war with Microsoft, signing deals today with two Internet service providers to offer co-branded instant messaging.

Both Earthlink Network and Mindspring Enterprises will offer co-branded versions of AOL's popular instant messaging software, the companies announced today. The two deals add another 2.5 million potential customers to the more than 40 million users who have already signed up for the AOL service. Last week, AOL signed a deal with Apple Computer on a version of its software.

The moves were seen by many as a way to battle Microsoft, which has tried to lure users away from AOL by making its own instant messaging software interoperate with AOL's version. That move by Microsoft kicked off a nasty fight between the two companies, with AOL claiming that Microsoft was essentially "hacking" into its servers. In return, Microsoft and others have blasted AOL for not opening up the code on its software.

In a cat and mouse game, AOL repeatedly figured out ways to blocks to Microsoft software, and Microsoft developed workaround to get users past the blocks. In the latest move, AOL has been kicking Microsoft Messenger users off the service, with a notice that they are using "unauthorised software."

Instant messaging has become enormously popular with Netizens, and AOL's AIM and ICQ programs dominate the space. AOL initially fiercely resisted the idea that its should allow other companies to break into its market. However, AOL has given indications that it might work with other firms to develop a common standard for instant messaging.

A committee of the Internet Engineering Task Force has been working to develop such a standard for some time, but has not yet come up with one. "With or without people like Mindspring and Earthlink, with that sheer mass of users there's no way that any standards body, no matter how many members it encompasses, can [control AOL]," said Lucas Graves, analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York.