A couple days ago, Microsoft and Yahoo announced that they had begun beta testing interoperability of their instant messaging (IM) services, enabling users of Windows Live Messenger, the next generation of MSN Messenger, and Yahoo!Messenger with Voice to connect with each other. In aggregate, the two companies’ IM services comprise nearly 350 million accounts.
As the result of the interoperability, subscribers to the two services can exchange instant messages as well as see their friends’ online presence, view personal status messages, share emoticons, view offline messages, and add new contacts from either service. It’s a step toward universal IM interoperability, but it’s only a step.
The latest versions of Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s clients interoperate using servers that employ the IETF’s SIP and SIP-based SIMPLE (SIP Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) protocols. Meanwhile, GTalk, Google’s IM client, supports another IETF instant-messaging and presence standard called XMPP, which also is supported by the Jabber community. In another camp is AOL with its proprietary IM technologies, and in a different camp again is eBay’s Skype, which is based on its own peer-t0-peer communications protocol.
What’s interesting is any and all of these services could interoperate with one another technically today. Yes, the technology to facilitate such interoperability exists today, as Alec Saunders points out. It hasn’t happened yet, because the vendors, especially the market leaders, don’t want it to happen. They don’t perceive interoperability, much less standards-based IM, to be in their interests. Not surprisingly, it’s all about control of the customer. AOL wants to lock its IM customers into community, Microsoft wants to restrict its subscribers to MSN or Live.com, and Yahoo wants to discourage its subscribers from venturing beyond the Yahoo portal and related communities. Privately, representatives of these companies will tell you the bitter truth — as they’ve told me on more than one occasion — but that’s not the sort of content that gets into press releases.
The Yahoo-Microsoft interoperability arrangement is intended to help both companies compete against longtime IM leader AOL and its franchises, while at the same time trying to undermine Google’s relatively nascent IM efforts to build competitive base in the marketplace. It’s a marriage of pragmatic convenience, not a romantic gesture of altruistic community service.
Maybe we wouldn’t have this mess today if the IETF hadn’t been hopelessly politicized, but, unfortunately, vendors will be vendors, and they learned how to manipulate the standards-body system, treating it as a pliable means to their commercial ends. The IETF’s guiding principles of non-partisan engineers getting together to dispassionately define standards that solve real-world problems have been undermined and neutralized by a stronger primal desire to influence and control the standards-making process in subservience to vendor-specific commercial goals. Not only major software vendors and Internet portals are playing the political game, but also leading manufacturers of networking and telecommunications gear, each of whom has an agenda to pursue. Some of these agendas conflict, and that’s when stalemates occur in standards bodies. The various SIP standards bodies have seen more than their fair share of chicanery.
Anyway, we have to deal with reality as we find it. What we find today is a bunch of IM services attempting to emulate the grotesquely alienating and enormously frustrating walled gardens of wireless operators. It’s essentially hostile to the customer, who, in theory, should have greater say in the matter. Customers, though, will have to assert their rights, because the IM providers aren’t about to indulge in empathic product management.
Those of us who see and appreciate the true value of personal communication understand that an open IM universe, including pervasive presence notifications across the various IM/UC clouds, should be the ultimate goal, not side deals between one or two providers arraying themselves against the others. How do we get there, though? I don’t think government regulation is the answer, because it has become an inherently corruptible process, one that mercenary lobbyists know how to exploit for the benefit of their patrons.
That leaves us with . . . well, I’m not sure it leaves with anything but an ideal. It’s an ideal worth having and promoting, but perhaps it is not attainable until the major IM service providers figure out how they can get something back in return for breaking down the walls between their services.