- The US Federal Communications Commission decision last week that it will require America Online and Time Warner to operate with other instant messaging (IM) systems is a step in the right direction, competitors say, but chatting between services is still a long way off.
The FCC has been investigating the merger for months with most attention focused on competitors' access to Time Warner's established network of cable systems, which can also carry broadband internet access, a lure for the dominant internet service provider AOL. The merger was approved last Thursday.
In a press conference last Friday, FCC chairman William Kennard stated that instant messaging could become as ubiquitous and necessary as the telephone.
"Our goal is to make sure no one company dominates it," Kennard says.
Under the conditions of the merger, AOL and Time Warner must adhere to industry guidelines, such as those under review by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), or sign interoperability contracts with other vendors when the company starts carrying advanced applications, such as streaming video, over its cable network.
AOL has said it will abide by the IETF standards once they are established, and that it blocks users of other services from chatting with its members for security reasons. The FCC decision pushes AOL to open up its instant messaging to other services, but not soon enough, AOL rivals say.
In a statement last Friday, IMunified, a coalition of companies pushing for open standards-based interoperability for IM, expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the FCC's conditions. Its members include AT&T, Excite@Home, Microsoft, Odigo and Prodigy Communications.
The coalition said: "We had hoped the FCC would take steps immediately to advance this cause for all IM users. Friday's order is a step. It still will not provide any near-term benefits for Friday's IM users. Indeed, given the limited contract requirements that are part of the order, it is possible that consumers will not see material benefits from the commission's order even over the long term.
"We appreciate the Commission and its staff for addressing this issue. It is significant that the FCC recognises that AOL's aversion to interoperability is a problem. But the problem is bigger than the FCC's limited action. As a result, AOL's stranglehold on IM will remain intact for now, and consumers' competition will continue to suffer as a result."