Barry Schuler is perhaps the third most powerful executive at America Online Inc. behind Steve Case and Bob Pittman. As president of America Online's Interactive Services Group, Schuler oversees the AOL service as well as Instant Messenger. In the last week, he's been thrust into the forefront of his company's latest cyber squabble with Microsoft Corp. In an interview with ZDNN Senior Executive News Editor Charles Cooper, Schuler detailed why his company took its controversial decision to throw up roadblocks to chat software made by other companies.
ZDNN: Has AOL had any fruitful discussions with Microsoft to resolve the issue?
ZDNN: Are you interested in talking with them about a settlement?
Schuler: Sure. I think we have been very consistent in our approach to this whole space and very straightforward. You know we started out with IM as a proprietary messaging service that worked only within AOL. Two years ago, voluntarily, as the Internet started to emerge, we opened our system. Then a year ago, we got approached by different people -- Netscape prior to the acquisition, Real Media, IBM, Lotus -- wanting to do either co-branded versions of the client or build their own on our back end. We've been very cooperative with people who wanted to do deals with us. For fair and not onerous deals, we're happy to talk to anybody.
ZDNN: How long do you guys plan to continue shutting out Microsoft?
Schuler: We believe and have always believed that a ubiquitous messaging service where everyone has the ability to talk with everyone else is the future. And it's really in just the last year or so that everyone's woken up to this and saying they want to do it to. Now that they want to do it, it's an issue. We're happy to go down that path, but it's not like flipping a switch. It's very complicated, because you have the issue of names, the issue of controls. The thing we fear the most is spam. Unlike everyone else who's now wanting to get into this business, we have tens of millions of people who want us to protect this environment. All of these issues have to be worked out. Unfortunately, Microsoft, rather than come to the table, is coming under the guise of supporting open standards -- which they do not -- using the same hacking that we try to protect our members from, under the guise of trying to promote openness. They are stealing our back end system and confusing and deceiving people.
ZDNN: Do you see a contradiction between AOL's insistence that the government require cable companies to open their lines to ISPs and your current position vis a vis Microsoft? That is, on the one hand you're arguing interoperability. On the other, you're saying, heck no pal, this is proprietary stuff we developed on our own.
Schuler: You're confusing apples and oranges. When it comes to open cable access, all we want to do is buy access from cable companies. I'm not saying give it to us. We're not hacking their system; we just want to resell their network services the same way phone companies do...When it comes to instant messaging, we're happy for anyone who wants to do a deal with us to either co-brand the client or build their own client. ZDNN: If Microsoft approached you about doing a deal, would that be fine?
Schuler: Yes. Microsoft is obfuscating the issue.
ZDNN: Are you concerned about negative PR fallout -- that is where Microsoft is cast as wearing the white hat of interoperability while AOL comes across as the villains in the black hats.
Schuler: Yeah, but you know what: We're seeing the tide turn. Microsoft's true colours are emerging. We voluntarily opened up our proprietary message service for free, yet the client they put out doesn't support the client they proposed to the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force.) They're being scoundrels for erasing AOL's instant message software off the desktop without asking members if that's what they want...Our (modus operandi) is, we hunker down and do what's right for customers. It's been a very successful formula for us. What's going to come out of this is we'll continue doing what we're doing...Down the road standards will emerge for this. We have a history of supporting open standards. When standards emerge meet our criteria for security and standards, we'll be first on block. But we're not going allow any thuggery on the part of Microsoft to endanger our customers.
ZDNN: What are the stakes here? How big is the potential for instant messaging
Schuler: There are over 700 million instant messages sent every day. It will only grow and be enhanced. In no way do we believe AOL will be the only people doing it.
ZDNet UK News has contacted Microsoft UK and requested a senior official at the company respond to this article. A news burst will follow announcing Microsoft's decision.