Daily Archives: July 14, 2006

IM Interoperability: It’s Not a Technology Issue

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.

Microsoft Girds for Google Enterprise-Search Battle

Microsoft executives have been beating their chests and talking a big game about repelling Google’s foray into enterprise search.

Earlier in the week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said search represented one of Microsoft’s highest priorities for investment. He pointed out that the enterprise search market is worth more than $13 billion, and that Microsoft had enlisted 35 business partners to help dominate it. Microsoft COO Kevin Turner has echoed and amplified Ballmer’s message — and who thought that was possible? — telling about 7,000 attendees at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Boston that, “Enterprise search is our business, it’s our house and Google is not going to take that business.”

He also said the following: “Those people are not going to be allowed to take food off of our plate, because that is what they are intending to do.”

He’s right, you know. That’s exactly what Google intends to do. Maybe it’s the lack of concerted competition in the past, but Microsoft executives sound downright churlish and indignant when they come up against competitive threats, which, after all, are what markets and customer choice tend to spawn.

Just as it’s Google’s prerogative to storm of the bastions of enterprise search, it’s Microsoft’s right to respond. What’s at issue is whether Microsoft can respond effectively. Not enough is known at this point about Microsoft’s plans to counter Google’s enterprise-search push. We know that the Google Mini and Google Search Appliance are out there, and that they would seem to represent attractive form factors and prices for enterprises, and they’re now loaded with search capabilities across Cognos, Oracle, SAS, Salesforce.com, and other applications.

Can Microsoft offer a similar solution? Will it attract hardware partners such as HP to provide the boxes for a search appliance? Can it get other software vendors, including its competitors, to allow Microsoft’s enterprise-search products to extend functionality to their applications and databases?

Microsoft is barking mad — and angry, too — about Google’s incursion into the domain of enterprise search. Talk alone, though,won’t get it done. Microsoft must have a detailed plan, and it must execute on it.

YouTube’s Hurley Runs Media-Mogul Gauntlet

Media magnates have gathered for their annual summer retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho, where they plot to take over and subdivide the pieces of the media world that they don’t already own.

It’s an invitation-only event, so that means the hoi polloi, of which I am a confirmed member, are not in attendance. This is strictly a forum of and for the media elite, including all the top executives of the world of film and television, plus major investors and the investment-banking host of the event, Allen and Co.

In recent years, invitees have included new-media interlopers with potentially disruptive Internet-based content-distribution and, sometimes, accompanying business models. The media titans like to keep a close eye on these web-based newcomers, to gauge just how dangerous or useful they might become. What better way to inspect them than to invite them to your summer media jamboree, where wheeling and dealing takes place in a bucolic, somewhat casual atmosphere that might occasion the callow or unsuspected to let down their guard.

In that spirit of wary self-interest, invitations this year were sent to and accepted by the likes of YouTube Inc. CEO Chad Hurley and Sling Media Inc. CEO Blake Krikorian, among others. Naturally, Hurley and Krikorian arrived at Sun Valley with aspirations and objectives of their own. As Hurley told the Associated Press:

“There is a big wave of video coming online and these (media) guys want to work with us to stay relevant in this changing marketplace. This trend in the Internet isn’t changing, so we are working with them to find solutions on how they can embrace what we are doing and really leverage that to help their business.”

Make no mistake, though. Allen and Co. isn’t hosting this event for the benefit of the Internet upstarts. It knows where its bread is buttered, and it is serving up these web-based newcomers for the delectation and edification of old-media overlords who pay their deal-making fees. However, if the new guys know that before they get to the event, and if they have genuine leverage (that is, if their companies and the technologies on which they are based represent inexorable market forces), then they can emerge from this week’s casual and formal discussions with a more than they had before they arrived.

Public statements shouldn’t always be taken at face value. What one says for public consumption and what one really thinks or would say privately are often diverge, sometimes for good reason. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to examine two comments made by Sling Media’s Krikorian and YouTube’s Hurley, respectively, this week in Idaho.

Said Krikorian to Reuters: “People are recognizing that it’s not old media versus new media — we’re talking about the same consumer.”

Meanwhile, Hurley told Reuters he did not view his business as disruptive to the television networks, saying, “We’re creating a new market for their content.”

Think about those two statements, because they reveal the tensions inherent in any relationship that forms between Internet-based media-distribution companies and the traditional media powerhouses. As Krikorian says, they’re serving the same consumer, but, as Hurley points out, they’re also “creating a new market for their content.”

The fact is, they’re not so much creating a new market for existing content as they are creating a new channel for that content to reach the consumer, and it’s a channel, especially in YouTube’s case, that the media mainstays — the television networks and the film distributors — no longer control. It represents time the consumer is spending online rather than watching television, including the paid advertisements that fill the networks’ coffers.

In the end, control of access to the consumer is what’s at stake. That’s why the Internet upstarts are invited to Sun Valley.