Instant chat systems not compatible

August 23, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

Besides the telephone, what's the most useful instant communications medium?

Right now, I'd vote for the fax machine. If you're involved in any form of business, you probably send and receive faxes every day. Fax machines are cheap, they're easy to use, and almost every office has one. Whether you're sending a fax across town or all the way to China, the only thing you have to know is what phone number to punch in.

One of the reasons we can zip faxes around the world is that all the major players in the industry got together many years ago and agreed on what a fax transmission should look like. They decided how a document would be scanned and turned into digital ones and zeros, and how those digits would be sent over phone lines. As a result, every fax machine can talk to every other fax machine. Mine knows exactly what to expect when it's receiving a message from yours and vice versa.

This kind of agreement is known as a technical standard. These standards exist in every industry -- they make commerce possible and they make our lives easier. Your can opener will work with Campbell's or Progresso soup because all cans are basically alike -- at least at the end you open. If your kid's soccer ball goes flat, you can blow it up with any hand pump because all pumps and all soccer balls accept the same needle valves. The tape you rent from Blockbuster will work on your VCR or your neighbor's because they both adhere to the VHS standard.

In fact, the Internet itself is nothing more than a set of technical standards for transmitting data between computer networks.

The problem is getting to the point where everybody agrees on a standard, and it's not a pretty process -- particularly in the bare-knuckled world of the computer industry. Right now, millions of us who use instant messaging programs are caught in the middle of one of those nasty brawls -- and we'll all suffer while the blood is spilling.

If you haven't tried instant messaging software, it's a great way to keep in touch with friends and family. Here's how it works: Let's say you want to contact Aunt Rhoda. An instant messaging program will figure out whether Aunt Rhoda is online. If she is, you can send a message that pops up instantly on her computer screen -- no waiting for e-mail. A few seconds later, you can be chatting in real time via keyboard.

The problem is that unlike e-mail programs -- which operate under rigid Internet protocols -- chat programs don't adhere to a single communications standard. They're too new for that. So if Aunt Rhoda and I aren't using the same software, we can't send messages to each other.

Normally, consumers who pay for software have a say in how it works -- if they don't like it, they can buy something else. But this is a strange marketplace because nobody charges for messaging programs. They're viewed as a potential but unrealized tool for bringing millions of eyeballs to advertisers. So customer feedback doesn't have its usual effect.

In this giveaway milieu, America Online dominates the same way Microsoft dominates in operating systems. More than 40 million people use AOL's friendly Instant Messenger, while almost as many use the slicker, more sophisticated ICQ, developed by an Israeli company that AOL bought for $287 million just to get control of the software -- and ICQ's 37 million users. As strange as it might seem, considering that they're both owned by the same company now, AOL Instant Messenger can't talk to ICQ.

Given AOL's dominance, everyone else in the business is an also-ran, with a couple of million patrons each. But they're trying to improve on that. Yahoo, Tribal Village and other Internet content providers are pushing their own proprietary messaging services, and the battle turned nasty earlier this month when Microsoft invaded everybody's turf with MSN Messenger, which employs yet another standard.

To make MSN Messenger more attractive, Microsoft figured out a way to allow MSN users to communicate directly with users of AOL Instant Messenger.

Since this required the use of AOL's servers, AOL cried foul and modified its software to block messages from Microsoft users. Microsoft figured a way around that roadblock, so AOL put up more defenses, and so on. The two giants have been playing cat-and-mouse for weeks now, while millions of instant messaging users of all stripes wonder why everybody just can't sit down and agree on a common standard that will let them all talk to one another.

Both AOL and Microsoft are paying public lip service to common standards. Microsoft even published the specifications for its own software and invited other publishers to join in. But given the bad blood between them -- and AOL's current stranglehold on the market -- it's hard to say when anyone will agree on anything.

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