Mac Musings

The Instant Messenger War

Daniel Knight - Sept. 21, 2000 -

Four years ago America Online (AOL) added a neat new feature: a "buddy list" that let you know when a friend was online so you could chat in real time. A year later, AOL expanded that to the entire Internet with its free AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software.

AOL wasn't the first, but it had the largest installed base to begin with and the easiest to use software at the time, so it rolled past ICQ to become the de facto instant messaging standard on the Internet.

That didn't make Microsoft very happy. Microsoft plays to win, and it was already smarting because AOL was more popular than MSN. Microsoft updated its instant messaging software to interoperate with AOL's - but without AOL's permission.

Realizing that Microsoft dominates fields by embracing a standard and then enhancing it with proprietary extensions, AOL rewrote AIM to block access by Microsoft's client. Every time Microsoft updated its program to work with AOL, AOL updated AIM to prevent outside access.

In the end, Microsoft and several others with instant messaging software got together and created their own standard, then invited AOL to join them.

Yeah, right.


Microsoft, Tribe, and the others are painting AOL as a monopoly, something Microsoft seems to know a good deal about. This raises a whole lot of questions.

There are several different instant messaging standards, just as there were once several different local and regional phone companies, just as today there are several different wireless phone companies. Whatever technology the phone companies use (wires, cellular, digital), they all have to communicate with each other. That's the nature of the telephone network.

That's the kind of analogy Microsoft wants to use here. It wants to force AOL to share protocols with all the other instant messaging products on the market.

It wasn't too long ago that proprietary email was the norm. We used QuickMail at work; it didn't work well with the Internet. There were lots of other email programs on the market that simply couldn't communicate with each other.

Enter the Internet. Sure, it's been around for decades, but it entered the public consciousness in the early 1990s. Where I work, we looked at adding an Internet gateway to QuickMail, then discovered freeware mail server (AIMS, later EIMS, and today SIMS) and mail client software (Eudora) that use standard Internet protocols. We switched, giving up a few features - no, you can't recall a message you've already sent - but gained connectivity to the world.

That was our choice. We could have remained proprietary, but we saw the benefits of joining the worldwide Internet community. That means we can correspond with people all over the world - and it means we get spam.

ICQ, AIM, and other instant messaging clients are a lot like QuickMail. They can work over the internet, but they don't play well with others.

Should they?

That's the big question. I believe that eventually all the IM clients will work together, just as all the proprietary email programs have had to learn to work with Internet standards.

But should we force AIM, ICQ, Microsoft, and others to do that?

That's where my independent streak comes out. We don't force every computer to run the same OS or every word processing program to use the same file format. We don't even require every email client to send plain vanilla ASCII email so everyone can read it. There are competing standards.

Sure, most of the world uses Windows and Microsoft Word, but some of us use Macs and ClarisWorks, or Linux and a text editor. We even use different browsers to read this article: Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, iCab, Opera, Lynx, and who knows how many other ones.

Shouldn't we have the same option with instant messaging?

The Real Issue

The odd thing is, these companies are all fighting over free software. Think about it: What's in it for them?

AIM screenWell, take a look at the AIM window. What's that big graphic at the top?

it's an ad, isn't it. As I have AIM open, AOL is giving me the opportunity to visit the World Foot Locker Megastore. And the longer the window is open, the more ads AOL will display.

Imagine the total ad revenue from instant messaging.

Now do you understand why the software is free, yet everyone wants a piece of the action? Each instant messenger client is a billboard generating income.

On a site like Low End Mac, we have thousands of visitors per day and display tens of thousands of ads. The ads keep the Web free. They cover the overhead of hosting a site, paying writers, gathering news, and more.

AIM is probably two or three orders of magnitude bigger than Low End Mac. I'd guess millions or even tens of millions use AIM every day. Even if AOL practically gives away the ads, taking in maybe one-tenth of a cent per exposure, the income adds up fast with millions of users connected for hours each day.

Believe me, there's nothing altruistic about Microsoft wanting to give you its instant messaging software. They want to control the ads; they want to reap the income.

Despite what AOL says, it's not about privacy or protecting customers. It's about money.

It is certainly in AOL's best interest to remain proprietary as long as possible. AOL dominates the market; allowing access by others will reduce their market share. That will reduce income.

Once we have an open messaging standard, everything changes. You could stick with the proven leaders: AOL, ICQ, and MSN. Or you could support your favorite company or cause with Apple Instant Messenger, Red Cross Instant Messenger, or Low End Mac Instant Messenger. Various organizations would contract with different messaging providers to run their servers and handle their ads.

It would forever change the face of instant messaging - and not necessarily for the better.

Microsoft made a big deal about the freedom to innovate. With an open messaging standard, that would either disappear or, more likely, fragment the market based on proprietary enhancements to the standard. At that point, you may find the AOL client and the Microsoft client can send text back and forth, but if you want to share a photo or talk, they won't interoperate.

In the end, an open messaging standard could be just another way of letting Microsoft dominate a market. Until then, I'll stick with AIM and my Buddy List.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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