The instant messaging farce

When it comes to companies as big as Microsoft and America Online, the word 'underdog' doesn't immediately pop to mind.

Yet here we have the twin titans of technology, painting each other as belligerent bullies as part of the instant messaging imbroglio that's dominated the headlines. This is truly one of the summer's most entertaining events -- right up there with mobster Sammy 'The Bull' Gravano's recent decision to come out of the witness protection program and invite his old buds to come visit him in Phoenix.

The fracas broke out when Microsoft (and Yahoo!) introduced messaging software allowing their respective users to chat online with people using America Online's chat software.

No shocker there: Chat software may very well turn out to be the next 'killer app.' It's certainly a growth market. AOL's Instant Messenger and ICQ services alone account for about 750 million messages each day. With that kind of potential, the other big Internet companies are understandably chomping at the chance to get a piece of the action.

But AOL is having none of it -- especially after discovering that MSN's chat function overrides its own messaging software. AOL blocked Microsoft's messages. Redmond's engineers still figured a way around. AOL erected another barricade. Microsoft just as rapidly vaulted the new obstacle course. And so it's gone, with little sign that their tit-for-tat is going to abate soon.

Not that I'd want anyone to come to their senses just yet. Why spoil the fun when so many people are speaking out of both sides of their mouths? Here we have America Online, whose cherubic chief executive has spent a fair portion of the last year trotting around the country arguing that it's soooo unfair to let the cable television operators maintain a monopoly over their own systems -- allowing no one but themselves to offer warp-speed Web access over their co-axial lines.

Steve Case wants Uncle Sam to open up the cable to other Internet service providers -- like AOL. Forget for a moment that they've spent billions to acquire and upgrade their systems. Case wants a free ride for his service -- otherwise he warns, customers will suffer. And so we come to AOL's latest conclusion that the best way to ensure customer choice is by shutting down Microsoft, Yahoo or any other chat system from accessing its instant messaging infrastructure.

Go figure.

Of course Case's opposite number at Microsoft won't be confused anytime soon with Albert Schweitzer. Over the course of the last five years, Bill Gates ordered his minions to drop everything on browser-rival Netscape Communications except thermonuclear weapons. Ditto for Sun Microsystems and its Java programming language.

But what's this? Dulcet tunes are emanating from Redmond where the new mantra is openness and interoperability. I suppose that would include opening up Windows APIs -- though I haven't yet successfully located any one of sane mind at Microsoft willing to suggest this course of action to their Boss of Bosses.

If you read through the reams of press releases issued by both sides, you'd be forced to conclude that both Microsoft and America Online are fighting on behalf of you and I. And if you believe that one, I can make you a good offer on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The problem is that when two powerful, strong-willed companies are so given to smash-mouth negotiations, it's hard to believe anything fruitful will emerge any time soon. And that means the poor schnook consumer will wind up the biggest loser of all.

Of course, Gravano's still out in Phoenix with time on his hands. So maybe he can talk to Gates -- and Case for that matter -- and make an offer they can't refuse.