Microsoft Releases New Version of MSN Messenger Service and Continues to Work Toward Industry Standard for Instant Messaging Interoperability

REDMOND, Wash. Nov 17, 1999 — Microsoft today launched a new beta version of MSN Messenger Service, the free Internet messaging service that enables people to communicate freely over the Internet and offers the tightest integration with popular Microsoft communications tools. Since its debut nearly four months ago, MSN Messenger Service has attracted more than 4.5 million users worldwide. The new Messenger Service is being launched as a part of the redesigned portal and its Message Center, which helps deliver on the Everyday Web vision by offering an integrated place for personal communications. The Message Center and new homepage are now live at today.

With the new MSN Messenger Service 2.0, consumers will enjoy richer customization and deeper integration with MSN services, and other enhancements designed to make communicating with friends online easier and more fun than ever. New features will include message formatting, news and headlines, support for Microsoft Passport, a “new mail” notification for Hotmail e-mail accounts, and a streamlined setup designed to make it easier for people to communicate with friends using instant messaging. MSN Messenger Service 2.0 will be available in 26 languages, building on the nine languages offered in the first version, making this release by far the world’s most widely available instant messaging service.

For the past two years Microsoft has been actively involved with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and other companies in the industry to create a standard for instant messaging. An industry standard would allow consumers to instant message with others, regardless of which software client they chose. In August of this year, Microsoft published the MSN Messenger protocol as a reference, which makes it easy for other instant messaging services to communicate with MSN Messenger Service today and represents a critical interim step to meet consumer demand until an industry standard can be developed and ratified.

One unique feature of MSN Messenger Service 1.0 is the way it allows users to exchange messages not only with other MSN Messenger users but also with people using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Over the past 3 months, in addition to working actively with the IETF, Microsoft has listened to consumers’ desire for interoperability and has worked diligently to provide an interim solution to ensure continuing interoperability with AIM users.

Unfortunately, things have reached a point where an interim solution is no longer possible because America Online has chosen to use blocking techniques that put their customers’ security at risk. With the release of MSN Messenger Service 2.0, Microsoft has decided that its highest priority must be the security of MSN Messenger users, even as the company remains focused on working toward an industry standard for interoperability. With that strategy, Microsoft believes that although AOL’s tactics will cause many customers to lose in the short term, consumers will truly win when an industry standard makes instant messaging more ubiquitous.

PressPass asked Yusuf Mehdi, director of marketing for Microsoft’s Consumer and Commerce Group, to comment.

Q: Why is Microsoft deciding to disable interoperability with AOL for now?

A: Over the past several months AOL has used a variety of tactics to block consumers from exchanging instant messages with their friends who have chosen to use different messaging services. Because consumers have loudly voiced support for interoperability between instant messaging services, Microsoft has diligently provided updates to MSN Messenger Service that enable AIM and MSN Messenger users to talk with one another. Unfortunately, it has come to the point where AOL is not only choosing to send spam instant messages to their own authorized users and disconnect them from the service in order to block interoperability, they’re also putting users at risk.

AOL is blocking MSN Messenger interoperability with AIM by exposing a very serious security bug in their client software. This bug, called a “buffer overrun” allows code to be run on a PC without the user’s approval or knowledge. To provide an update to MSN Messenger Service that would continue to enable interoperability, Microsoft would need to put our own users at risk in a similar fashion. Due to the severity of the issue and the fact that AOL is exposing its own users to this bug in order to stop AIM users from talking with users of other services, Microsoft is choosing at this point not to provide updates designed to enable interoperability with AIM. Our hope is that AOL will address this serious security issue for the sake of their users and begin to support interoperability rather than just talk around it and, in practice, endanger their users in order to restrict it.

Q: Does this mean you’ve given up on interoperability and AOL “wins” as many recent news reports have claimed?

A: Absolutely not. There are no winners. Consumers will win when an industry wide instant messaging standard is in place that ensures all users’ the ability to message with others regardless of which service they’re using, in much the same way that different telephones or email clients interoperate today.

Communications continues to be the cornerstone of the Internet, and instant messaging is becoming a more prevalent way for people to communicate online. It is our view that instant messaging should quickly evolve to enable any individual to exchange instant messages with anyone else irrespective of their client software or messaging system. For this reason, we began working with the IETF two years ago and will continue to work actively with IETF and the rest of the industry toward a standard and do everything we can to respond to the consumers’ desire for interoperability.

Q: Was this decision to disable interoperability for now based on technical blockages by AOL or was it more of a strategic decision?

A: The decision is based entirely on the way AOL is choosing to block the interoperability at this point — so it’s technical. Due to the severity of the security bug AOL is exposing in the AIM client, we have made the decision that protecting MSN Messenger users’ security is more important. We’re still exploring ways to continue providing interoperability without exposing this bug in our client software, but it’s gotten more and more challenging.

Q: Is the lack of interoperability permanent, or is there a chance you’ll enable it again in the future?

A: Our decision to disable interoperability for now is a response to AOL’s current tactics, which have already put their customers’ security at risk and would threaten our users’ security if we continued to force the issue. We are still committed to working with IETF and the rest of the industry to provide users the kind of interoperability they clearly want. Our hope is that AOL will address the serious security issue for the sake of their users and begin to support interoperability.

Q: Does this mean your commitment to working with the IETF for an instant messaging standard has changed, too?

A: No. Microsoft’s goal has always been to work with the IETF and enable people to communicate freely on the Internet, no matter which software client they choose. Microsoft has supported establishing an open standard with the IETF since November 1997, when Microsoft and the rest of the industry proposed the rendezvous protocol (RVP, and now called IMPP – instant messaging and presence protocol) to the IETF. AOL was approached at that time to join with Microsoft, the other companies and the IETF, but they declined. To date, AOL has not been actively involved with the rest of the industry in responding to consumer demand for interoperability.

Microsoft has been a leader in working with standards bodies and supporting industry standards for interoperability. Microsoft Internet Explorer is a great example, because it was the first browser to support CSS, HTML 4.0, DHTML, etc. AOL has no track record in the area of industry standards.

Q: Do you know how many MSN Messenger users actually used the interoperability functionality?

A: Consumer response to MSN Messenger Service has been remarkable, with well over 4.5 million unique, active users adopting the service in just under four months. This means MSN Messenger already has 30 percent as many active unique users as AIM, and has essentially reached parity with Yahoo. With the release of MSN Messenger 2.0 and the new features it offers, we are optimistic that consumers will continue to choose MSN Messenger Service as the premier instant messaging service.

Q: What is the current state of Microsoft’s relationship with AOL on the subject of instant messaging?

A: We have been open to working with AOL in a way that benefits consumers, providing the interoperability that instant messaging users are asking for. Microsoft and several other companies have sent AOL numerous letters asking for their commitment in driving towards an industry standard. We have not yet seen any indication that AOL is interested in truly supporting this effort, although they’ve been paying lip service to the idea.

Q: In light of this decision, AOL maintains that Microsoft was invading AOL’s network without authorization. Is this true?

A: No. MSN Messenger gives people using the AIM service a choice of which client software they want to use to send instant messages to other AIM contacts. A person who chooses to use the MSN Messenger client uses his or her authorized AIM account, just as they would with the AIM client. All of the login, authentication and messaging activity for AIM contacts is still managed by AOL servers, exactly as it would if someone were using the AIM client. MSN Messenger simply provides one integrated interface that allows people to send messages to both MSN Messenger users and AIM users.

Q: Why did Microsoft choose to move forward with AIM interoperability in lieu of an approved instant messaging standard, especially if it couldn’t see it through?

A: Again we strongly believe that the long term and best solution for consumers is adoption of an industry standard. MSN Messenger will support the standard as soon as it is developed and ratified. In the interim, we have been delivering a simple and straightforward solution that provides consumers with interoperability among instant messaging clients. People have been responding with overwhelmingly positive feedback on MSN Messenger, so we have continued to do our best to meet consumer demand for interoperability. We did not foresee getting to a point where AOL would make providing interoperability a situation where customers’ security is risked. Microsoft is simply unwilling to expose MSN Messenger users to that kind of risk.

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