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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us