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Mail wars: the Microsoft versus AOL square-off

Microsoft leads the charge for open standard chat clients (cough)

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Here's a shocker: Microsoft is seeking immediate penetration with a product it has only just developed, into a market someone else has cultivated. Only days after its release, Microsoft's new knockoff chat client, MSN Messenger Service, has been twice booted from America Online's well-developed and costly chat networks. Microsoft has tweaked its system to get back in, and AOL has counter-tweaked to keep them out, tit for tat. Apparently, AOL thinks Microsoft can afford to develop its own chat networks. Microsoft finds that entirely unfair, and is loudly calling for open standards among all chat clients to make them fully interoperable. This would be good for consumers, the company says. It would be no different than the phone system which allows people to ring each other from anywhere in the world, it says. AOL, which added ICQ to its chat networks last year at a cost of $325 million US, sees it differently. "We support open standards," AOL's Ann Brackbill told The Register, "but there are technical issues to be resolved." Among them is the click-and-drool security AOL's users have come to expect. The company enjoys a reputation as an exceptionally safe Web environment, which it naturally wants to defend, as that forms the basis for its pricey, "premium" service. At issue here is an AOL password prompt appearing in the Microsoft client. Microsoft assures us that the login data go directly to AOL, thus bypassing MS servers entirely. Brackbill concedes that the practice is harmless in itself, but points out that AOL doesn't want its users developing slack security habits, such as entering their passwords in an outside context. To bolster this impression of openness, AOL points to the fact that anyone can download their chat client, AOL Instant Messenger, and use it regardless of which ISP they connect through. The chief objection to Microsoft, Brackbill says, is that "they did this in a way that was not disclosed to us". The battle could turn legal, as industry front-groups are already lining up across the divide forming two camps, those supporting and those opposing open standards for chat clients. There are big players on both teams. AOL says it is not among those opposed, but would welcome an agreement on open standards, and probably hopes to achieve one without the participation of the sort of big-gun lawyers Microsoft can produce in endless supply. Still, AOL may have shot itself in the foot by publishing an open-source version of Instant Messenger. The company says it did so to encourage Linux users to get on board, and never intended for industry giants like Microsoft to exploit it to gain "unauthorised access" to its systems. But the cat is out of the bag: the temptation now is for others to develop competing, interconnective products and implement them without giving AOL a second thought, thus increasing the likelihood that outstanding issues will need to be resolved in court after the fact. Since publication, Yahoo! and Prodigy have made use of the code to develop their own, fully interoperable clients, both of which are at present blocked from AOL's servers. It remains a headache for AOL to keep the invaders at bay, no doubt; and at present the whole dynamic inclines uncomfortably toward future resolution in the courts. That'll teach them to share. Thus far Microsoft appears to favour fighting for what AOL might just give it if it asks nice. It will be worth watching this to see if negotiation can win over the urge to do battle in America's litigous corporate cosmos. In the mean time, those who wish to multiply AOL's labours can download Microsoft's chat client free at the MSN Web site. ®

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