Microsoft and AOL get the message

Instant messaging giants agree to work on industry standard

Finally, officials from Microsoft and America Online have met face-to-face to discuss creating an industry-wide standard for instant messaging.

After months of an intense game of cat-and-mouse, where AOL continually blocked Microsoft's attempts to link MSN Messenger users with AOL Instant Messenger users, the two companies are now participating in an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) working group to design an instant messaging and presence protocol (IMPP).

About 30 industry professionals, including two from Microsoft and one from AOL, attended a two-day meeting held by the group last week in San Francisco. "We strongly support an industry standard for instant messaging," said AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein. "We're happy to work with any company or group to make that happen." Microsoft spokesperson Tricia Fahey agreed. "We believe the best approach to this issue is to work with the IETF on creating an IMPP standard," she said.

Dave Maritz, co-chair of the IMPP working group and an Internet strategy consultant for Fujitsu Labs America, said the first draft of a standard could be ready by early next year, with final approval from the group's members coming soon after. At this time, neither AOL nor Microsoft will say whether they will adopt the group's standard, but both say they support the IETF. "Technology development always happens this way," Marvitz said when explaining the current tension between Microsoft and AOL. "People develop different versions of technology and then, eventually, recognize the need for a standard."

The goal of the IMPP group is to make instant messaging interoperable across any platform or service, similar to the way email works today. The group does most of their work and discussion through an email mailing list but also holds several meetings throughout the year. "The real accomplishment of this meeting was a clarification of some of the issues and establishing a common understanding of some of the technologies," Marvitz said. "That's harder to do when it's not face to face."

Marvitz said the group discussed the advantages and disadvantages of different data structures and certain transport models at last week's meeting. "This group is so techie you just wouldn't believe it," Marvitz said. "It's wonderful because it's very democratic, but horrible because we deal with a level of detail that no one else would care about, nor should they."

Despite their support for the IETF's efforts, the behind-the-scenes instant messaging battles between Microsoft and AOL continue. "Microsoft uses regular testing in order to try and have interoperability," Fahey said. "We're using standard procedures."

AOL doesn't see it that way. "Microsoft is using our resources without authorization and putting our users at risk. We'll continue to take steps to prevent them from doing so," Weinstein explained. The next IETF meeting will be held 7-12 November in Washington DC.