REDMOND, Wash., July 25, 2000 — Once thought of mostly as a chat service for teenagers, instant messaging is quickly becoming an important form of communication at home as well as the foundation of a whole new generation of mission-critical, real-time communication applications at work. To date, however, the ability of leading companies in the instant messaging (IM) field to provide innovative solutions for users has been severely hampered by the lack of a single interoperability standard, which would allow people using different IM systems to communicate freely.
A newly formed coalition, called IMUnified, is setting out to rapidly enable users of all members’ instant messaging services to communicate with each other in a seamless, convenient, private and secure manner. The coalition, which includes many of the major technology and IM companies, is working to make publicly available a set of specifications that will enable functional interoperability among their members’ instant messaging services by the end of August. Coalition members plan to implement this functional interoperability by the end of the year and are fully committed to protecting users’ privacy and security in the implementation of interoperable IM.
In a recent roundtable discussion, PressPass spoke with Yusuf Mehdi , Microsoft’s vice president of MSN, Ross Bagully , CEO of Tribal Voice, Inc., and Brian Park , Yahoo!’s senior producer for Yahoo! Messenger, about the goals of the new coalition, the future of instant messaging, and inviting other IM companies who share the vision of interoperability based on open standards to join this effort.
PressPass: Today, you are announcing the formation of an industry coalition that has been created to publish a set of specifications that will enable functional interoperability among their members’ instant messaging services. Let’s start by talking about the background for this new group. Why IMUnified? Why now? Who are the members?
Brian Park, Yahoo!
Park: All of the companies involved with this organization are committed to a common aim, which is to work together to ensure that users of various instant messaging services will be able to communicate with each other in a safe and private manner, no matter what system they are on. By working together, we’ll be able to learn from each other. That will enable us to quickly come up with a solution that deals with all of the issues people are concerned about, including questions about privacy and security.
Mehdi: We believe that instant messaging offers tremendous opportunities to empower users to communicate with each other-to share important information with each other on any device and any system, anywhere in the world. All of us here envision a time in the not-too-distant future when instant messaging will be a communication tool that is as powerful and valuable as email, or the phone system. But the challenge we face right now is that there is no common instant messaging standard and no interoperability. As a result, instant messaging is still stuck in the dark ages.
Driven by that vision and that challenge, most of the industry’s leading innovators have joined in this effort to come up with a single, industry-wide interoperability solution. The organization’s members include AT & T, Excite@Home, Icast, Tribal Voice, Yahoo!, MSN and many others. Our goal is simply to develop and implement as quickly as possible a plan for interoperability that is complimentary to the work we’ve been doing with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) all along.
PressPass: Why is the creation of a single, industry-wide standard so important?
Mehdi: Internet standards have been an important tool to enable interoperability among technologies and companies. Once a standard is defined, companies can then turn their attention to innovating on top of that standard. An example of this is the way email systems talk to each other today, no matter what email service people use. The same will be true for instant messaging. We want to be able to compete based on innovation rather than having to compete on differing standards. When we can do that, there will be broad benefits both for consumers and for the industry as a whole.
PressPass: But isn’t instant messaging all about buddy lists and teen chats? Why go to so much trouble for such a niche technology?
Ross Bagully, Tribal Voice, Inc.
Bagully: The misconception that instant messaging is still all about buddy lists has really allowed the seriousness of this issue to go unnoticed. Instant messaging is not about chatting, for teens or adults. It’s really about the delivery of critically important, time-sensitive information that the consumer has identified. And it’s not about one-way delivery, either. Rather, it’s about the ability to receive and then react to information in real-time, and to see some kind of immediate result based on your action.
Here’s an example that I like to use: Suppose that the flight you are scheduled to depart on late this afternoon has been cancelled. With instant messaging, instead of finding that out when you get to the airport, you’d receive notification hours in advance. And not only would you get that notice, but you’d be able to act on it-in addition to the cancellation bulletin, you’d get information about other flight choices, with the option to book an alternate flight. So now, instead of being stranded at the airport, you’ve made other arrangements before you even really have a problem, and you’ve been able to do it by email, or with a handheld device, or through your cell phone at a time and place that was convenient for you.
Park: Instant messaging has tremendous growth potential, both in the number of people who will use it and how it will shape future communication services. We are already seeing millions of people use IM every day – people who not only use it to see when friends are online, but also to talk for free with anyone anywhere in the world, send pictures, share files, and communicate between wireless devices.
PressPass: The list of IMUnified companies is pretty impressive, but there is one notable exception. Why not AOL?
Bagully: At this point, our members have self-initiated their participation in this effort. However, we welcome any other company committed to the goal of full IM interoperability based on open standards, including AOL. Why not AOL until this point? Actually, I don’t think it’s that mysterious. In my view, what separates those who are participating in this effort and those who are not is their level of interest in interoperability. Today, AOL controls 90 percent of the market, and they don’t want that to change.
The problem is that without interoperability, there are limits on who consumers can communicate with. In the long run, that is absurd. Think about telecommunication. Imagine if you had to have different telephone equipment and telephone service providers to call different friends or business associates because one person uses Worldcom and another uses AT & T. Nobody would stand for it. But that is exactly the situation that exists today with instant messaging.
PressPass: AOL recently told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it strongly favors interoperability. If that’s the case, why has AOL come under so much criticism over this issue?
Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft
Mehdi: Over the course of the last year, several companies have produced software that enabled non-AOL users to send and receive instant messages to and from AOL users. AOL blocked such efforts. After a storm of protest, AOL publicly committed itself to the standards-setting process that would result in interoperability, saying that it recognized that every instant messaging user should be able to
PressPass: AOL has said that it is concerned that a rush to create an instant messaging standard could lead to problems with junk mail and spam, as well creating security problems. How serious are these issues?
Bagully: Privacy and security are absolutely important. Nobody is trying to ignore them as legitimate concerns. But the issue here isn’t whether they are important but whether they are made worse by interoperability, and the fact is that security and privacy concerns are in no way increased by interoperability. Claims by AOL that developing an industry-wide standard will weaken either one are both wrong and entirely disingenuous. AOL knows that interoperability doesn’t increase the risk of spam or anything else. All the companies that interoperate with AOL now, or did until they were blocked, do so using AOL protocols. Beyond that, there are companies with products that offer more protection and greater levels of privacy. I think AOL knows that.
PressPass: How much of an emphasis will security and privacy be in the work that IMUnified does?
Park: Security and privacy are extremely important to us and our users. What is exciting about this coalition is that we have created a forum for instant messaging services to work together and to learn from each other’s experiences. As we develop the specifications for interoperability between our systems, we will examine each of our systems and make sure we don’t introduce new ways for our users to send spam. Our end goal is to work both within the industry and with the IETF to create a system that is even more private and more secure than what is available today, a system that all IM providers can stand behind.
PressPass: What is the timetable for the IMUnified group?
Bagully: We want to have a solution sooner rather than later, which means working together efficiently and welcoming all other interested IM companies to participate in order to accomplish this goal. We just announced that we will publish specifications that will enable functional interoperability among IMUnified members’ instant messaging services and that we will implement during the fall timeframe. The important thing to keep in mind is that we are a group of companies committed to working together to find and implement the best possible answer in the near term. This effort is a natural bridge to the longer-term standards process of the EITF. Our coalition members’ intend to be among the first to support protocols developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in its efforts to create standards for IM interoperability.
PressPass: What will development of an instant messaging standard mean for consumers and business users?
Park: Creating a standard protocol will mean that anyone who uses instant messaging will be able to communicate with any other instant messaging user, no matter what system or solution they are using. That will spur a great deal of innovation in the industry and lead to fantastic new choices for both home users and business users. In the end, the benefits to users and the industry as a whole will be enormous.