In a surprise move, America Online Inc. on Monday took the first steps to enabling interoperability between its AOL client and ICQ in a refresh build of AOL 8.0 released to beta testers. Beta users can now add an ICQ number to their buddy lists, but messages cannot be exchanged until AOL releases a new version of ICQ, which will be available "in the near future."
BetaNews has learned that a beta build of AOL Instant Messenger 5.1 released last week sports similar functionality, but because the AIM server does not recognize the entries, ICQ users are automatically purged from the buddy list. Buddies with ICQ are listed with "-ICQ" appended to their number.
AOL purchased ICQ from Mirabilis in June 1998, but kept the service separate from its own AOL and AIM networks. Despite speculation that the company would allow for communication between the services, AOL remained steadfast that it had no such plans.
The decision for AOL to thus far not allow interoperability is strictly one of business, according to sources close to the company, as the limitation lies in the client itself--not the server architecture.
AOLs instant messaging platform has a modular design comprising tightly held libraries dubbed COOL Components. Each communication protocol utilized by AOL has its own component, including ICQ, which was ported to COOL shortly after the acquisition. COOL is also found in the latest Netscape releases.
In order to test COOL Components, AOL uses a specialized tool dubbed TestBuddy. TestBuddy resembles a slimmed-down version of AIM and has the capability to connect to each AOL-owned network. Apples Rendezvous technology is also included in TestBuddy.
For a client to communicate with multiple networks, it must support the appropriate components. A version of AIM released in mid-2000 first showcased this technology by connecting to both ICQ and AOL, but could not send messages across networks. However, the news publicly raised questions about AOLs intentions in the IM space and subsequent AIM releases lacked ICQ support.
The latest beta releases of AOL and AIM contain the necessary libraries to interoperate within AOLs network, as will the next release of ICQ.
The move to connect its networks may be an attempt by AOL to consolidate its numbers after the shift in power that has occurred over the past two years. The once fledgling MSN and Yahoo! networks have garnered a considerable market share from AOL Instant Messenger, and ICQ has been struggling to maintain its user base. By merging AIM and ICQ, AOL will once again control a vast majority of the IM market.
AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo! and numerous other groups have continued work on a universal IM standard for interoperability, but have yet to reach a consensus. Other companies such have Trillian have opted for client-side approach to interoperability and built in support for each chat network into a single application.