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AOL to test system that makes popular service work with those offered by rivals

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ America Online says it plans to test a system later this summer that would enable users of its popular instant messaging service to communicate with people who use other products, like Microsoft's MSN Messenger.

AOL, the nation's largest Internet provider, said that it's almost done developing the technology that would allow its messaging services to operate with those offered by other industry players.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, the company laid out the steps it has taken to reach this goal. The company has selected a standard, developed new customer software and created systems that enable different services to talk to one another.

AOL said it has been conducting internal trials using the system. It expects to complete an agreement with a leading technology company to conduct a live test between two different servers later this summer.

For consumers, that could one day mean a seamless communications system, in which they can send short real-time messages to each other regardless of which service they use.

Right now, that's not the case _ much to the consternation of rivals like Microsoft, AT&T and ExciteAtHome. They have argued that AOL is trying to monopolize the market. Jupiter Media Metrix estimates that about 25.5 million people have downloaded AOL's free service; the online giant's 30 million e-mail customers also have access to the service.

Last year, rivals lobbied the FCC to force AOL to make its instant messaging service work with other systems as a condition of the company's merger with Time Warner.

AOL and Time Warner executives argued at a hearing before the agency's commissioners last July that such a requirement was not necessary and that the company was hoping to develop within a year the technology to make such interoperability possible.

The FCC ultimately did not impose a requirement on AOL's existing instant messaging service but did order AOL to make future generations of the service _ offered over Time Warner's cable lines _ work with competing services. The agency also asked AOL to provide a progress report on its effort to open up its system to rivals.

In the FCC filing, AOL said the issue is not as easy as it seems. To make all the services communicate, the companies would need to rely on the public Internet _ something that could slow down the speed of message transmission, AOL said.

Making the different services interact could also make it possible for hackers to crack into the system and send spam or other unwanted messages to users, the company said.
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