AOL Pact Opens On-Ramp To Its Instant-Messaging Universe

Starting in a few months, business users with Antepo, Jabber, Omnipod or Parlano IM can link to 14 million business America Online Instant Messaging (AIM) or ICQ users as well as tens of millions of consumer users, the companies said. AOL estimates that it has more than 100 million ICQ/AIM users worldwide.

News of this Enterprise Federation Program likely will come as a blow to Microsoft, which had positioned its soon-to-ship Live Communications Server Connectivity Pack as the primary bridge from EIM--that is, its own EIM--to the public AOL and Yahoo networks. AOL also partners with Reuters on IM.

Now what appeared to be a one-lane highway has a lot more options. Business users on any of those four IM systems now will be able to chat with their friends and colleagues on AIM or ICQ securely, AOL said.

There will be tolls, however. AOL will get royalties for each of the IM networks accessing its user base, said Brian Curry, vice president of subscription services for the Dulles, Va.-based company. AOL and Yahoo last year pulled the plug on plans for their own business IM offerings, instead allying with partners such as IMLogic, Akonix Systems and FaceTime Communications. Now AOL has found a way to profit from business IM without having to field its own product.

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The architecture underlying all of this federated access is the same, according to Curry. "We are allowing their servers to make a secure connection to the AOL network. The messaging and presence traffic moves back and forth between their server and our service through a gateway we built. It comes in on the native protocols, and we translate it," he said.

IBM is notable for its absence from this deal. Lotus Development, now a part of IBM Software, was an EIM pioneer and the first to offer interoperability with AOL's networks, but that deal lapsed. Microsoft's subsequent pact with AOL was seen as a huge advantage for the Redmond, Wash., software giant, which is trying to build its own enterprise-class IM.

While Antepo, Jabber, Omnipod and Parlano don't have the huge installed base of the public networks, they represent a significant--and potentially lucrative--base of business users, since recent regulations have made secure IM a hot commodity. Antepo, for example, has a presence in many financial services companies, as does Jabber, which also targets government users.

"The big news is that partners like Antepo or Jabber can potentially better compete with Microsoft in the federated IM space," said David Via, vice president of business development at the Wolcott Group, an e-mail integrator in Fairlawn, Ohio.

The real "silver bullet" for EIM would be a way for users to have one IM client that accesses their broad range of contacts, regardless of which IM system they're on, Via added. "Without that, people still have to run multiple clients to connect to the entire world of IM users. Solution providers who want to help customers roll out infrastructure or develop apps still bump up against this issue of, 'How can I be sure I talk to the people I need to talk to over IM?' " he said.

IM became the communication medium of choice among kids nearly decade ago and has since spread like wildfire among business people. But the medium remains in the state that telecommunications and e-mail were in their early days, said several industry players, who recalled that in the early 1990s a person with an MCI mail account couldn't communicate with a friend on CompuServe. Those barriers eventually evaporated, and the use of e-mail exploded.

"Federation is one of our goals, not so much because it's a direct revenue impact but more because it eliminates some of these obstacles to adoption," said Paul Guerin, CEO of Denver-based Jabber Inc.

"Clearly, AOL is the most important public network for business, and we've tried for several years to get a deal like this going," Guerin noted.

Maxime Seguineau, president of New York-based Antepo, agreed that AOL--despite inroads from Yahoo and Microsoft IM--remains the key player and the ally that all sides are seeking. With the alliance, "AOL is telling the market that there are other players that really matter in the EIM market today and that Microsoft may not be the ultimate tidal wave that people expected," he said.

IBM's absence is huge, Seguineau added. Lotus Sametime pioneered secure, business-ready IM long before Microsoft started circling the market. There is now an opportunity for other players to capture "a significant share of what IBM could have claimed," he said.