Thursday, July 13, 2006

An IM game of Go

So this week has seen the birth of a limited interoperability beta test between Microsoft and Yahoo! IM bastions. The real thing to strike me in the announcement is how un-respectful it is of their respective users’ base.

The press release itself is written entirely in marketing-speak, and is rather arrogant when referring to their users. Not only do they call them “consumers”, but they try to make them, and us at the same time, believe it was so difficult to achieve interoperability. That sounds like a typical telco’s speech, don’t you think? And by many aspects it is. After all Yahoo! always believed they had built “a transport network” and that they could become a carrier. Microsoft is, well … Microsoft and has always believed it was everything. Maybe calling their users “consumers” make them feel more like real “carriers”

For those a little familiar with the public IM context, this announcement is not about empowering their federated users’ base, but clearly aimed at isolating even more their arch rival AOL. Not directly, as one would immediately believe, by excluding it from their “interoperability”, but rather by undermining potential revenue sources. AOL is deriving revenues from charging for the access to their community of users. In certain industry verticals, such as finance or insurance, AIM is widely used, and AOL as been careful to preserve this population. It is taking advantage of it to extract revenues through “certifying” access to its private IM community. This announcement is an additional nail in their isolationism’s coffin. This is clearly what I read behind Microsoft and Yahoo! declaring that their users

…will be among the first to exchange instant messages across the free services as well as see their friends’ online presence, view personal status messages, share select emoticons, view offline messages and add new contacts from either service at no cost.

Frankly speaking, how would AOL pay toll remain sustainable in the future? Not much! You can trust all the financial institutions’ IT teams to leverage this announcement to their own advantage.

This interoperability move also provides Microsoft with a clear tactical advantage on the enterprise IM server market. They will clearly benefit from this new context and will certainly be pushing their LCS further into the enterprise. Microsoft can provide LCS connectivity to MSN, and through the interoperability agreement, will reach Yahoo! users. They already have “certified” LCS connectivity to AOL. LCS will end being the only certified multi IM networks connectivity for the enterprise. The cleverness touch resides in all this being done without infringing any right. Much unlike the use of XMPP transports in enterprise, if you see what I mean.

…there are no technical barriers to open IM interoprability between AOL and Google…

By announcing their intent long before they actually delivered, the legacy pair has again used one of the well known techniques of market control byincumbents described by Robert X. Cringely. I believe AOL is bound to move soon to counter the Microsoft Yahoo! interoperability deal. With the small investment from Google in AOL, it makes an interoperability announcement between these two other players a plausible scenario. There are no technical barriers to an open interoperability between AOL and Google, as AOL has already deployed XMPP gateways for the enterprises. On paper, it may allow a rapid reaction by AOL, but they are also known to be such slow negotiators…

You may have noticed how this annoucement is about a “proprietary” interoperability. As a matter of fact, nothing is ever said about how they technocally bridge the two legacy networks. I have seen a suggestion that the next step should be the publication of an open interoperability specification by Microsoft and Yahoo! I wonder if the author is so na├»ve, or was under the influence of one of his blogging “ingredients”, as to expect an “open” specification coming from these two dinosaurs. Moreover, this is not needed, as the open specification for IM interoperability already exists in the form of XMPP. Email interoperability was never achieved through “industry players”, and almost every vendor led consortium has failed to impose any long lived interoperability standard on the Internet. Is the real issue people’s short memories, their propention to re-invent the wheel, their limited conception of the Internet time-space or (name your own reason here) ...

In spite of their desire to make us believe that something truly revolutionary had been achieved, Microsoft and Yahoo! have only managed to set the foundation for a larger IM island. A 350 millions inhabitants’ continent perhaps, but an island still. Previous similar attempts, such as those by Compuserve or Genie, to deny free communication over the Internet, have failed.

Even more so in a time of user’s empowerment, in the absence of an honest voice, you’re bound to remember John Lydon’s famous words: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Once a fraction of these 350 millions would have realized the vacuity of the announcement and noticed the contempt with which they have been treated, it might become a heavy incentive to force Microsoft and Yahoo! to become really interoperable…

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