AOL in 'food fight' to keep instant messaging shut

Now that tensions are cooling in the Middle East, perhaps President Clinton will meet at Camp David with the heads of two hotly warring factions in Netdom: America Online and Microsoft.. The two companies are engaging in a technological tug of war not seen since, well, Microsoft took on RealNetworks over streaming media last year.

Now that tensions are cooling in the Middle East, perhaps President Clinton will meet at Camp David with the heads of two hotly warring factions in Netdom: America Online and Microsoft.. The two companies are engaging in a technological tug of war not seen since, well, Microsoft took on RealNetworks over streaming media last year.

The basic story here is that AOL dominates instant messaging with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ, while Microsoft (and Yahoo and Prodigy have tried to sneak in with instant-message software that interoperates with AOL's.

AOL quickly blocked the others' intrusions; Microsoft offered a fix; AOL parried with another block; Microsoft countered with a revised version ... and so on.

Though very little happened yesterday outside of posturing, many outlets jumped on the sumo match between the Net titans. Wired News headlined its report "AOL's Chat and Mouse Game," while ZDNet quoted software pioneer John McAfee predicting an All American conclusion for the tussle: in a courtroom. The Washington Post escalated the metaphor and went front page with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's report that Microsoft and AOL "proposed conflicting peace terms yesterday for ending five days of electronic warfare." Unsurprisingly, AOL said it was willing to talk to Microsoft but wouldn't back down, and Microsoft's "proposed armistice calls for AOL to essentially surrender and stop jamming the messages," according to the Post reporter. He made the salient point about firms battling to control de facto standards on the Net -- and beating the drum for open standards if they didn't win out.

But the San Jose Mercury News' Dan Gillmor went further, calling both behemoths "instant hypocrites." He said AOL has a rational desire to retain its proprietary hold on IM, but that its comments are "the height of hypocrisy given its positions on other issues (i.e. open access in cable)." And Microsoft looks just as bad, Gillmor says, since it dominates the software world with proprietary Windows and then whines about a competitor doing the same thing in another field. Most analysts figured AOL would drag its feet but eventually cave in and support an open standard for IM.

While Microsoft appears to be the victor so far in the PR game, that advantage could be short-lived as consumers tire of the move-countermove rhythm, Giga analyst Rob Enderle told the San Francisco Chronicle's Tom Stein. Online chat is 5 to 1 in favor of Redmond, Enderle guessed. "The Internet community likes standards, and AOL is perceived to be breaking things. This is resonating badly among customers.''

In the meantime, we can revel in the technohijinks. The best ring-side color commentary came from Forrester analyst Tom Rhinelander, who was quoted in the Merc saying that the dispute has become "kind of like a food fight, like a couple of juveniles saying 'You can't do this,' 'Yes I can,' 'You can't do this,' 'Yes I can.'"

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