NEARLY a year after promises, instant messaging services still lack standards

Saturday, May 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Alec Finn's mom and sister use an instant messaging service from America Online. His work friends are on a different one from AOL, along with Microsoft's MSN. Another friend is on Yahoo!

If this were the telephone or e-mail, Finn wouldn't have trouble communicating with everyone.

But sending bursts of text instantly over the Internet is different.

Instant messaging is relatively new, and companies providing the services have yet to agree on standards, nearly a year after making a lot of noise about wanting to do so.

None of the four major systems talk to one another. So Finn, a manager at a technology company in Raleigh, N.C., has signed up for all of them. He doesn't believe they'll ever agree to work together.

``Everybody likes to protect their own territory,'' he said.

Finn has found a service, called Imici, that attempts to bridge the four services through a single software tool.

Other stopgap services exist, including Odigo and Jabber, but they are just that _ stopgap solutions that still require multiple sign-ups.

The situation is akin to phone users having to sign up with AT&T, Sprint or any other network their friends are on. The stopgap services would allow them to do all that from the same telephone, instead of needing three different phones.

But true interoperability for instant messaging would be closer to what's expected with telephones these days _ an AT&T customer can reach a Sprint user without signing up for Sprint as well.

With instant messaging, that's still months if not years away.

``The value is only as good as how many people you can talk to,'' said Alex Diamandis, Odigo's vice president for sales and marketing. ``We believe instant messaging should be as seamless as making a phone call or sending e-mail.''

Warren Carithers, a Rochester Institute of Technology professor who has used e-mail since its early days, said technicians agreed on e-mail standards in the 1970s because they were the ones driving the advances.

With instant messaging, though, delays stem from a ``desire on the part of service providers to attract and keep a user base,'' he said.

In other words, large companies driving the technology advances don't want to give up market share.

But deeper down, instant messaging is in real time and generally involves knowing whether the recipient is already online. That presents significant technical challenges involving computing power requirements and methods for protecting sensitive customer data.

``There needs to be a large amount of information that needs to be centrally located, and everyone's fighting over who's controlling that information,'' said Trent McNair, chief software architect at Imici.

The stakes are high. Though instant messaging began as free services for friends and families to send notes instantly online, some businesses now embrace it. Next-generation applications promise to blend text, voice, photos and video _ and lucrative instant information services.

According to Jupiter Media Metrix, nearly 49 million people used at least one instant messaging service from home in the United States last month, a 28 percent increase from 38 million a year earlier.

AOL's Instant Messenger is the leading service.

That company's dominance and the technology's potential were enough of a concern for federal regulators approving AOL's merger with Time Warner that they barred next-generation services, such as sending video clips instantly, until standards for them exist.

But others want standards for existing text services as well.

AOL reiterated a commitment to standards last June but has yet to release a detailed plan for text services. AOL's competitors, who frequently accuse AOL of stalling, have missed a self-imposed deadline to enable interoperability among themselves by the end of 2000.

Meanwhile, three leading manufacturers of wireless devices _ Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia _ announced April 26 that they, too, would develop rules by year's end under what they're calling the Wireless Village initiative.

Craig Peddie, a general manager with Motorola Inc., says wireless companies cannot afford to wait because updating devices takes more time than updating software.

All of the companies have pledged to ultimately work with the standards-setting Internet Engineering Task Force. But that organization, which has been discussing standards for about three years, has missed several deadlines as well.

After issuing a call for proposals, the task force ended up with three competing ones last summer, with no consensus over which to pursue. Engineers decided to working instead on defining rules for virtual gateways to make any protocol work.

A draft is expected by this fall. After that, the individual protocols must be updated _ and services must adopt one.

Dave Crocker, a consultant with Brandenburg InternetWorking who is the lead writer for the gateway rules, fears the various delays may have killed the usefulness of standards in the near term.

``The dominant instant messaging players ... have had three years to entrench,'' he said. ``The customers will give up waiting. If they want to use the service, they want to use it now.''

AOL spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan said her company expects to have unspecified solutions available for testing this summer. So far, it has attempted to block the stopgap services like Imici and Odigo, as well as MSN when it tried to let its users onto AOL in 1999.

AOL complains that those approaches require AOL users to give out passwords to third parties.

``Interoperability pursued the wrong way without privacy and security could destroy instant messaging to consumers by exposing them to a whole new raft of spammers and hackers,'' McKiernan said.

Others question the rush for standards. Matthew Smith, chief executive of PresenceWorks Inc., prefers to let the business market determine the winner.

Writing the rules now, he said, is like ``standardizing what the forest looks like when it's just starting to grow.''