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AOL and Microsoft are like two bullies sparring forcontrol of the school playground
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The Independent Online

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

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

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

I use an instantmessaging program called ICQ - pronounced "I seek you" - almostdaily, to talk to my friend Thomas in Seattle or to ask quick questions of myworkmates in the same office.

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

When you want towrite 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 hasarrived, and it is quick and easy for them to read your comments and reply ifthey wish.

So far, so good. However, as yet there is nostandard way of sending instant messages by Internet, the way there are waysof sending e-mails or Web pages, and every chat program uses a differentsystem. So if I am using ICQ and a friend of mine is using the AOL InstantMessenger (AIM), we cannot talk to each other (even though AOLbought ICQ last year - but that's another story).

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

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

Two weeks ago, both Yahoo and Microsoft releasedchat programs that could not only talk to AIM, but allow AIM customers tocommunicate with each other without using AIM. Why does it matter whose chatprogram is being used? First, in order to use the pseudo-AIMprograms, users have to type in their AOL screen names and passwords. Notonly do these potentially compromise security; more importantly, the AIMprogram serves banner ads with each message, so AOL no longer gets the adrevenues. So almost as soon as the Microsoft and Yahoo instant messengerswere released, AOL changed its code to put a stop to this. Yahoo hasgiven up for the moment, but Microsoft changed its code to combat AOL'schange, and so AOL has made further changes to cut them offagain.

It's like watching two bullies sparring for control of theschool playground. AOL has the right to protect the security of its customersand make money from its own work. But this squabble is a symptom of a muchbigger problem: large companies do not have a vested interest in creatingstandards if they already have control of a market. AOL, the firstcompany to make real use of instant messaging, has a proprietary grip onit.

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

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

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

Jason Cranford Teague is theauthor of DHTML for the World Wide Web. You can find an archive of thiscolumn at WebbedEnvironments.

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