The messaging diplomats: Can they bring peace?

Martti Ahtisaari and Viktor Chernomyrdin they're not. But thanks to the AOL-Microsoft instant messaging imbroglio, two little known technologists have been thrown into a role not unlike the two Balkan peace brokers.

The two technologists are Vijay Saraswat and Dave Marvit. And they have found themselves embarked on their own kind of diplomatic mission as co-chairs of a working group commissioned by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The group's charter: To find the "rough consensus" toward a protocol that would allow one instant messaging service to operate with any other, and as ecumenically as different e-mail services do today.

Even before AOL and Microsoft's cat-and-mouse erupted into the banner headlines, Saraswat and Marvit knew they had a tiger by the tail. The reason, they will tell you, is that instant messaging technology isn't just about chat -- even though that much has already turned it into a proverbial "killer app."

Instead, the 38-year-old Sarawat, a senior researcher at AT&T Shannon Laboratories at Florham Park, New Jersey, and the 37-year-old Marvit, an Internet strategy consultant for Fujitsu Labs America in Santa Clara, California, contend that real-time chat and "buddy lists" represents only a rudimentary implementation of the basic technology. Says Marvit: "Vijay and I know that a lot of traffic will be based on services and offerings other than instant messaging. Once the infrastructure is in place you can do a lot of stuff beyond instant messaging."

For example, Saraswat, a computer science Ph.D. who worked at Silicon Valley's famed Xerox PARC research centre for nine years before joining AT&T, foresees the day when a real-time digital communications technology will allow people to share their "context" with other. "Let's say I'm sitting at home watching TV and you are somewhere else," he says. "Suddenly what I'm watching is something I want you to see. Through my buddy list I know you're watching TV too. So I click and send you an instant message from my TV. When you click on TV, you not only get my message but the show I'm watching as well."

For his part, Marvit sees uses that are even more essential. He says instant messaging involves two concepts. One is that you are, in effect, publishing to the world that you happen to be present online at any given moment. (This is what a "buddy list" does.) The other is real-time communication. "My grandmother could publish her heartbeat," Marvit says, allowing a health care facility to monitor it -- and react to any anomalies by either calling her into the doctors office or automatically dispatching an ambulance if something more serious was indicated. No wonder AOL and Microsoft have been willing to risk ridicule by engaging in what superficially appears to be a schoolyard game of one-upmanship. Says Saraswat: "Just as HTTP and HTML were foundations of the Web, this is the next step in that it brings in interaction -- it's at the heart of people's experience on the Internet."

It's so central that, Saraswat and Marvit agree, no single company can keep the genie in the bottle, let alone to itself. "I simply don't expect a situation in which one company dominates instant messaging," says Saraswat. "We are at the beginning, not the end, of the evolution of instant messaging. There are too many good ideas for one company to be able to muscle everyone else out."

"All the fun has yet to come."

The challenge is big. And if your idea of fun is climbing into a ring and trying to referee two heavyweights without getting clocked yourself, then Sarawat and Marvit are about to have a ball -- and for months to come. Though their Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol working group, as it's officially called, has been in existence for nine months, it is barely halfway through the normal process of creating an standard. According to both, the working group has been gathering from the 100 or so interested individuals involved in the effort what they consider to be the main requirements for a universal IM protocol. They are just now prepared to start the real work of drafting the actual protocol -- a formal document that will describe the rules by which instant messaging services, their various servers and clients will communicate with each other over the Internet.

The two say they hope to have a rough draft by the end of the year -- with a finalised protocol by next year's first quarter. The controversy could well accelerate the timetable. Up until last week, no one representing AOL was participating in the working group. Last Thursday, Barry Schuler, the president of AOL's Interactive Services Group, called to say that will change. Schuler also invited Saraswat and Marvit to participate in a industry advisory group he was calling together to debate IM messaging issues.

The IETF declined, however, with officials citing the organisation's neutrality. Nevertheless, like good diplomats grounded in the pragmatics of the world's realpolitik, Saraswat and Marvit left an opening, signaling their willingness to work with AOL and encouraging the company to cooperate with IETF for its own best interests. "If AOL wants a standard, it's easy to do," says Saraswat. "They should publish their existing (instant messaging) protocol. They might even create a de facto standard." After all, says Saraswat, "We don't have to design a whole new standard -- we have to design a standard that will work in the real world."