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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'