Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Speaking of cluetards...

Have you notice the drums roll and trumpeting around the latest Sametime interoperability announcement? I always find it entertaining to witness how incumbents can turn a failure to respond to their customers wishes into a world saving progress without even a blush!

At the end of the summer of 2004, I had the opportunity to see IBM in action at a workshop held by the Financial Service Instant Messaging Association on the subject of IM interoperability. FIMA had been worried very early on by the disparity of instant messaging protocols, both in the public and the enterprise IM space. So they set to give their least common denominator functional definition of interoperability, which when you think of it is not asking for the moon…
At the workshop, vendor presented their views, and it all went smoothly until the chair of the Jabber Software Foundation asked IBM why they wanted to support the still unfinished SIMPLE protocol as a federation protocol rather than XMPP which was already stable and widely used alongside Sametime in the financial industry.
Anyone either business savvy or a little familiar with Sametime's technical architecture would have though along the same lines. From an architecture standpoint, the multiplexers, community hubs and community server applications of sametime, with their permanent TCP links, can be functionally mapped one to one with XMPP client connectors, session managers and service components. From a business perspective, federating the existing large financial industry's Sametime islands with the expanding XMPP footprint would have help IBM keep an edge against the nascent Microsoft LCS expansion.
Instead, we were granted a flame from the IBM representative in favor of SIMPLE which was more typical of a Gorilla's behavior than a business representative:

If challenged by a younger or even by an outsider male, a silverback [Silverbacks are the strong, dominant troop leaders] will scream, beat his chest, break branches, bare his teeth, then charge forward.

In short, SIMPLE was the way to go, and everyone not endorsing it was stupid and doomed to fail. Well, two years after, IBM announced interoperability with XMPP, which instantaneously guaranties secure and controlled communication with any XMPP server, including those at Google. They also announced interoperability with AOL, but funnily enough they do not specify what protocol they use. You maybe interested to know that AOL offers both an LCS flavor of SIMPLE and XMPP to enterprises for federation with AIM. As there is no mention of interoperability with LCS in the Sametime announcement, it would be interesting to have a clearer insight on what they IBM is using for interconnecting with AOL. As to Yahoo!, well it is always a little difficult to have anything but a fuzzy statement from these guys. Anyway, the announcement said federation between Sametime and Yahoo messenger is on the "road map".

Ken Camp came up with a nice and illustrative contraction to apply to people unable to spot the appropriate answer to end-users' aspirations, cluetards… In this case, IBM is only different from the average by the size, just a large cluetard. If I were a financial Sametime customer, I would claim compensation for having been treated this way and left longing for so many years.
More importantly, this episode illustrates once again how large incumbent IT vendors are blind to real users' needs, when they are not in line with their core business. IBM business is in selling servers, not in providing communication between peoples. I find it amazing that a pure technical choice made by some ex-Ubique geek ended up depriving an important business community of an easy and beneficial way to conduct their business with small firms or other institutions.

Beyond this, Giacomo is in my opinion asking the right question: should we forget SIMPLE? In a perfect world, I would certainly answer positively. In the real world, it will take some time in view of the interests at stake. Having been involved in designing applications federating both protocols, I certainly have a unique perspective on the strength and weaknesses of each of them. From a technical standpoint, my only observation is that SIMPLE simply lacks the simplicity needed for a wide adoption.

  • Except the Microsoft LCS there is no SIMPLE based instant messaging and presence (IMP) application in service outside the telecom industry. Anybody having looked closely at the actual protocol used by LCS will agree that it's actual compliance with SIMPLE stops short after the first SERVICE packet. Microsoft has leaned the hard way that SIMPLE was not ready for IMP, and has been obliged to supplement the lack of the protocol with LCS own extensions. Such things as multi client instances, message sessions, contact lists management, preferences, multi user conferencing are notably absent from the specification and have partially been implemented by Microsoft using non-standard extensions.
  • From a user agent perspective, the closest to a "standard" SIMPLE client implementation is the Counterpath' eyebeam softphone and it XLite derivative. Their development team deserves the greatest respect for having incessantly been trying to accommodate the ever changing scope of XCAP, and the various contact lists management options that must be part of a "workable" SIMPLE solution. But while doing this, they had no time to automate the status change to "on the phone" when a SIP call was taking place…
  • From a standard stand point, those who have red the 2500 plus pages from the 3GPP describing the use of SIMPLE for presence are well aware that, for example, list services, XCAP and a stable definition of rich PIDF are on the critical path for delivering the service as expected by the IMS architecture. XCAP is probably the most blatant example of wheel re-invention in this industry, where the oversized ego of the author is holding back an entire industry. More importantly, if one look at the SIMPLE RFCs and drafts authors, one can quickly infer that the standardization process is done by a vendor led consortium. As I have said before, almost every vendor led consortium has failed to impose any long lived interoperability standard on the Internet. I am afraid SIMPLE is another one of them, and it is time to realize it…
  • Finally, there is the complexity of SIMPLE. It makes it difficult to grasp by the average application developer outside those versed in "voice over…". When adding together the rather rigid framework provided by SIMPLE and the vast differences in interpretations by various implementers, it makes this protocol look "elitist" when compared to XMPP. As I mentioned above, having designed and implemented converged systems supporting those two protocols simultaneously, I can vouch that any application programmer can grasp how XMPP works; the same is not true from SIMPLE.

As Ken put it, simplicity and elegance alway make winners and losers. Simplicity is unfortunately not the first quality of SIMPLE. As a result, it has not seen mainstream adoption by web application developers which are instead turning to XMPP. That said, SIMPLE will not go away easily in view of the heavy investments made by many cluetards. Unfortunately this state of affairs will help maintain the silo divide between the telecom and the internet worlds.

The term "elegance" finds its origin in the Latin "eligere" which also gave the derived term "election". In fashion as in real life, elegance implies making a choice. In the Sametime case, it was between remaining Incredibly Blind and Mediocre, or working at solving real end-users pain points. You can guess what choice was made…

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