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In many ways, the IM market is déjà vu all over again. In an age of universal, standards-based Internet connectivity, IM remains a bastion of proprietary technology.

So if you’re on Microsoft Live Messenger, don’t even think about pinging buddies who happen to be using AOL’s AIM system. And so you end up with segregated communities that can speak to each other with great difficulty if at all. It’s kind of funny that this still exists in the Internet age.

But 15 years ago, that’s exactly how email worked. When the business world began using the Internet, proprietary email systems added gateways. It was complicated and expensive, but the precedent was set. When ISPs emerged, providing direct access to the Internet with free, standards-based email, you could say that the rest was history.

Obviously, the transition forced huge dislocations on the first generation email industry, but of coursed, it opened up new e-business and service opportunities that far dwarfed what came before it.

Consequently, at first glance, you can’t help but conclude that by keeping their technologies proprietary, that IM vendors are shooting themselves in the feet. Even if standards commoditized their IM services, think of the additional higher value added services that could be unleashed as a result.

Well maybe.

Looking at email as precedent, the good news is that connectivity has grown virtual, cheap, and ubiquitous. But the bad news hits you in the face when you log in every morning, courtesy of the spam, malware, phishing attacks that clog your corporate networks and personal mailboxes.

Don’t give the AOLs or Microsofts of the world too much credit here. Their prime motivation remains protecting their turf. To date, they’ve barely paid lip service in supporting interoperability standards. The usual suspects, including IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL, each developed their own dialects of SIMPLE, which meant that there was effectively no standard.

But what broke the ice was Google’s endorsement last year of XMPP, the protocol developed by open source IM server provider Jabber. As a consumer brand, it’s too hard to ignore Google. And just this week, IBM bit the bullet by agreeing to add support of the upstart standard.

Nonetheless, the opening up of IM is not about standards.

Look at Google. It lists roughly a half dozen, mostly minor, third party IM systems with which it interoperates via XMPP. Now, Google is not the kind of provider that would waste its time with custom links. Its standard practice is to publish a single API and expect that many will come.


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