Where's My AIM?

Sometimes a technology becomes a little TOO important to us.

In my case, it's America Online Instant Messaging, aka AIM. I'm on it far too long daily because it expedites reporting, eases social interaction, and has become otherwise indispensable. Occasionally it boots you off for no apparent reason, but it's free, and it usually works.

Last night, not so much.

Sometime around 11:30 or so, I got shut out. Friends and colleagues elsewhere in Massachusetts, in Connecticut and New York met the same fate. It's unclear whether the outage extended beyond the northeast corridor, but that's probably a safe bet. {An AOL spokeswoman acknowledged the outage but did not have information on its scope.) After trying to connect back up for a half hour or so, most of us gave up the ghost and watched Letterman without our online pals.

It was amazing how isolating the experience was.

The whole free thing is huge. As a Wall Street sage once said about one of Microsoft's many under-cutting price strategies (this one aiming at Adobe's font-for-sale business): "It's hard to beat free." One could bet Netscape feels the same way.

So AOL, and now Yahoo and Microsoft, have seeded the market with tens of millions, perhaps more than a hundred million, IM users but who's counting? (Well, come to think of it, AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, are.)

Now comes the hard part. Can these zillions of IM warriors be persuaded to pay actual dollars for what they've had for free? Microsoft clearly hopes so. It's inked deals to link users of the public AOL and Yahoo IM networks into its Live Communications Server 2005 infrastructure. The connection pack to do so is due any moment now.) Incomprehensibly, Lotus/IBM, which forged the trail with such interoperability between its Sametime and AIM, let its deal there lapse. Once again, Microsoft which lagged the field appears poised to take it over. Who can think of a better example of the importance of the network effect than IM?

Are outages like this AIM thing enough to spur cheapskates to pay for IM? Maybe. A word to the wise though, if we're paying for it, it sure as hell better NOT go down.