High-stakes instant-message battle

This is a story about messages. A lot of messages. About 750 million a day.

It's also a story about a clash of cyber-Titans, who, strangely enough, find themselves defending positions that in other high-tech areas they defiantly oppose - cyber-Titans who appear to have resorted to dirty tricks in some cases to get what they want.

It's a story about a piece of software called Instant Messenger. America Online owns it. Microsoft wants access to it. And therein lies the heart of this tale.

AOL's Instant Messenger (known by its initials, AIM) allows users to instantly send typed messages to other users. Some estimates show about 80 million people use it daily. Most of them run AIM constantly when they're online (so they don't miss any messages).

This is the reason why AOL and Microsoft are battling over access to AIM users - constant use means you can be constantly sending users a stream of ads as well.

The instant-message industry was running along tickity-boo until earlier this month, when the folks at AOL noticed something was happening. That something was the 800-pound gorilla of the high-tech industry, Microsoft. It seems that Microsoft, which has an instant-message software of its own, was trying to hack its way into the AOL system, so that its relatively small number of users could converse with the large numbers of users on AOL software.

AOL didn't like this for two reasons: First, by hacking into the AOL system, Microsoft was making AOL's machines do all the work; and second, for all the business AOL does with Microsoft, they don't like each other very much.

Since the first Microsoft hack, the companies have been engaged in a running battle, with AOL blocking Microsoft users, and Microsoft countering with new ways around the blocks.

Both companies appear to be using questionable tactics. An e-mail sent by a "third-party observer" to a well-known computer security expert claimed that AOL was exploiting a bug in AIM to keep Microsoft out. The e-mail was traced back to Microsoft and was probably sent by a Microsoft employee. On the other hand, there is evidence that AOL is using a bug to block out Microsoft users, in a tactic that could endanger the computers of anyone running AIM.

But the most intriguing aspect of this conflict is the battle over what are called "open standards." After AOL blocked the first hack attempt, Microsoft sent AOL president Steve Case a letter demanding he open up AOL's code to allow anyone to use it. An interesting position, considering that no one has been less supportive of open standards than Microsoft.

But the Redmond, Wash., giant is not the only company in this story guilty of talking out of both sides of its mouth. While AOL is vigorously defending its right to rule the instant messaging world, it is arguing in court and in the US Congress that cable companies must be forced to allow all major players to use their lines to bring customers broadband Internet service.

So why all the fuss?

Instant messaging may become our primary form of communicationin the 21st century. It's already used by millions of people daily, for business and pleasure. Industry observers are actually saying that as the software improves and offers voice and video connections (which is sure to happen), it could replace phones.

The reason that Microsoft wants to break the AOL monopoly on instant messaging is that it's worried that AIM will become the VHS standard, and its own software the Beta.

For now, we can expect the AOL-Microsoft instant-messaging battle to rage for the next few weeks while these cyber-Titans clash over the future of billions of dollars.

Who will win? Hard to say. Let's just hope that the real losers don't turn out to be the people who actually use the software.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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