Instant Messaging Isnt an Instant Platform

Opinion: The opening of the AOL network to third-party application developers invites prompt but prudent exploration.

In a week when the tech communitys attention is focused on the notion of an "attention economy," notably in sessions at the OReilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, its no small coincidence that AOL is opening its formerly limited-access instant messaging network to third-party application developers.

Its been said, probably first by Turing Award winner Herbert Simon in 1971, although its also often attributed to Esther Dyson, that information is that which consumes attention. By that measure, AOL Instant Messenger is potentially the most— ahem— informative invention of our time, with worldwide traffic already well in excess of one message per day per living person.

The distribution of that traffic, of course, is so far from uniform that it may be a little silly of me to put it in those terms, but its still one heck of a lot of messages—and access to the AIM network invites developers to ride that still-climbing curve as it grows in both the number and the complexity of peoples interactions.

Im not yet a regular user of instant messaging, which I tend to view as combining the worst aspects of both conventional e-mail and conventional voice telephony. Like e-mail, IM lacks the social cues of vocal inflection and facial expression that we use to tell the difference between irony and offensiveness; like the telephone, IM derails trains of thought and paves the way for ill-considered decisions.

Those are limitations, though, that can be overcome by continuing improvements in lower-level technology, along the lines sometimes labeled "ubiquitous computing": pervasive broadband and presence-awareness tools could let me have a face-to-face conversation with anyone via the nearest network-connected display device, while more refined calendar integration and activity detection protocols could assist me in avoiding interruptions that are below my current threshold of urgency.

Crucial, though, to the effective use of expanding IM access is up-front attention to security and auditability.

Just as e-mail is now a focus of critical attention in litigation and enterprise governance, so must instant messaging and related services be implemented in a manner that meets rising expectations (and growing concerns) regarding electronic communications manageability and quality-of-service assurance.

When something like IM is a state-of-the-art convenience that people use, and know theyre using, its allowed to be less than perfectly reliable— and to require a bit of deliberate care on the part of its users to avoid early adopter pitfalls.

When it makes the transition to being a behind-the-scenes platform for applications that people incorporate into their daily routine, or when it becomes an invisible component of application-to-application infrastructure, it has to be better than that.

Ill be looking at these and other related issues as I attend sessions and have conversations at the OReilly conference this week: Youll see some of my notes in entries on the Inside eWEEK Labs blog and in my commentaries on eWEEKs podcasts, including my new eWEEK InfraSpectrum podcast each Thursday.

Meanwhile, tell me what youd like to see someone do on the IM platform at


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