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Getting AOL to Talk to MSN

Instant messaging products are everywhere, but the proliferation is turning the Internet into a tower of Babel. New technologies that promise interoperability are trying to change that.

With an estimated two hundred million users worldwide, instant messaging has clearly found its way into the Internet zeitgeist. Today, AOL, MSN and Yahoo vie for dominance in the consumer market with software that lets customers participate in a sort of “talkie-typie,” where correspondence zips through the ether in real time. AOL alone shuffles one billion messages per day.

Lately, a crop of software companies have been hoping to mimic the popularity of instant messaging (IM) with the chief information officer set by creating enterprise IM products designed to operate behind corporate firewalls. Many of the most recent technologies are instant messaging “gateways”-software that can translate between different IM software to facilitate the wheeling and dealing that e-mail handles today. But can instant messaging change the corporate landscape to the same degree that e-mail did in the last decade? And will IM gateways be able to convert a Wild West of competing products into a manageable network?

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Many companies see instant messaging as both a thorn in the flesh and the next potential killer app. The thorn is mostly felt in IT departments whose firewalls are not designed to monitor IM exchanges. While e-mail servers can usually filter out suspicious attachments, IM leaves some systems vulnerable. IM attachments, for the most part, can’t be scanned, nor can conversations be monitored or logged.

On the other hand, the promise of IM is its ability to detect presence and allow real-time communication, which could fill one of the largest vacuums on the Internet. “Imagine,” says Sonu Aggarwal, CEO of Cordant, a Bellvue, WA maker of IM gateway software, “having a contact in your IM buddy list that represents your Delta flight reservation. Rather than having to call an 800-number and digging up your reservation code, that buddy’ is your ticket, constantly communicating the status of the reservation.”

But today that promise is stymied by IM software packages that use their own proprietary protocols. “The whole IM scene is as factionalized as Afghanistan,” says Rob Batchelder, research director at Gartner, a technology research firm in Stamford, CT.

For example, if company A uses Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service, made by Redmond, WA-based Microsoft and its customer uses Lotus Sametime, a product of Armonk, NY-based IBM, the two can’t speak to each other, let alone to a third party that uses consumer IM software.

IM gateway software tackles this dilemma head on. Essentially “middleware” that a company can install behind their firewall, IM gateways translate between various IM protocols. “You can use the IM system you want in your company and we’ll do the translation,” says Francis deSouza, CEO of IMlogic, a Boston-based company that will provide gateway technology to future versions of Microsoft’s enterprise instant messenger.

Today’s enterprise IM market is worth an estimated $100 million a year, Gartner estimates-a modest sum for the software world. But as major players like Sprint and AOL roll out their own enterprise IM products, Gartner predicts the market will grow at least 50 percent annually over the next three or four years.

Meanwhile, companies such as Foster City, CA-based Facetime, Chicago-based Imici, San Francisco-based Messagevine, and Denver, CO-based Jabber are competing to provide the mortar to patch these disparate IM languages together into a single network.

But not everyone is convinced that the patchwork will hold up. “These gateway systems are going to be strung together with spit and bailing wire,” says Gartner’s Batchelder. “It won’t be reliable as a synchronous communication system.” Unlike e-mail, Batchelder says, IM has no “safety net,” queues into which undelivered messages can go when there’s a breakdown somewhere in the network. “No one’s ever been able to build a real-time messaging system out of gateways,” he says. “To do a real time messaging system you need an overarching network and an infrastructure such as AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! that can be commonly used by all the parties that want to traffic over it.”

Cordant’s Aggarwal and IMlogic’s deSouza both admit that gateways will likely turn out to be a temporary fix. The ultimate solution, they believe, will come not from a single network provider like AOL but from a coalition of providers signing on to a single protocol, such as the Session Initiation Protocol, which is being developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force. “There’s too much investment in multiple protocols from the different parties,” says Aggarwal. “To surrender to any one network means the others all go out of business.”

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