Web Design: Killing the messengers

THE BATTLE lines are being drawn, and the rumbling of siege guns can be heard in the distance. The first skirmish of what may be the first great cyber-war is being fought. Microsoft and America Online (AOL) are coming into direct confrontation, fighting over the instant messaging market, which could grow as large as e-mail over the next few years.

Instant messaging allows Internet users to send quick messages to each other in something approaching real time; in many ways it is as quick as using the telephone, and many "chat" programs allow a group of people to talk at one time in chat rooms.

I use an instant messaging program called ICQ - pronounced "I seek you" - almost daily, to talk to my friend Thomas in Seattle or to ask quick questions of my workmates in the same office.

Most instant messaging programs work in pretty much the same way: after installing the program, you register a screen name and password with a server, which will then be alerted any time you are online and are running the program. You can then add to your list of contacts other people who are using the same instant messaging program, and the program will let you know whenever they are online.

When you want to write one of those people a message, just double-click on their name, type your message and send it. They will be alerted that a message has arrived, and it is quick and easy for them to read your comments and reply if they wish.

So far, so good. However, as yet there is no standard way of sending instant messages by Internet, the way there are ways of sending e-mails or Web pages, and every chat program uses a different system. So if I am using ICQ and a friend of mine is using the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), we cannot talk to each other (even though AOL bought ICQ last year - but that's another story).

AOL has been lukewarm at best on creating such a standard, since the instant-messaging market tends to snowball, with more users joining the service that has the most users. Since AOL has the lion's share of the instant-messaging market right now, they have the most to lose.

Now here's the rub. A while back, AOL published information for Unix users on how to create their own instant messaging program that could be plugged into the AIM service. The code was published for anyone to see, and both Microsoft and Yahoo came and saw.

Two weeks ago, both Yahoo and Microsoft released chat programs that could not only talk to AIM, but allow AIM customers to communicate with each other without using AIM. Why does it matter whose chat program is being used? First, in order to use the pseudo-AIM programs, users have to type in their AOL screen names and passwords. Not only do these potentially compromise security; more importantly, the AIM program serves banner ads with each message, so AOL no longer gets the ad revenues. So almost as soon as the Microsoft and Yahoo instant messengers were released, AOL changed its code to put a stop to this. Yahoo has given up for the moment, but Microsoft changed its code to combat AOL's change, and so AOL has made further changes to cut them off again.

It's like watching two bullies sparring for control of the school playground. AOL has the right to protect the security of its customers and make money from its own work. But this squabble is a symptom of a much bigger problem: large companies do not have a vested interest in creating standards if they already have control of a market. AOL, the first company to make real use of instant messaging, has a proprietary grip on it.

Imagine if e-mail had started in the same way, rather than parallel systems coming together and integrating. If the creators of the various e-mail systems had squabbled about proprietary technology and who had the right to whose data, rather than sharing it in distributed networks, e-mail, the Internet and the Web would never have caught on; they would still be fragmented, cliquish groups of users.

So is Microsoft, which has put forward its instant-messaging technology for consideration by the Internet Engineering Task Force as a public standard, wearing the white hat here? Not really. Microsoft has a long record of demanding standards when it is the underdog, then forgetting them when it suits its needs. And if Microsoft decides to "integrate" its instant- messaging system into Windows, as it did with Internet Explorer, then AIM will certainly take a nosedive.

Perhaps the days of standards are over, and we shall return to the bad old days when my system couldn't talk to yours because we used different software. Of course, if we all just used one company's software, then that company would become the de facto standard and we could all live happily ever after. The horror. The horror.

The writer is author of `DHTML For the World Wide Web'. His column is archived at Webbed Environments (www.webbedenvironments. com); e-mail jason@webbed environments.com