ISP Alliance Plots IM Revolt

EarthLink and six international internet service providers may agree to use an instant messaging platform different from America Online's dominant service.

EarthLink and six international internet service providers may agree to use an instant messaging platform different from America Onlines dominant service.

At a recent meeting of EarthLink and Brazils Universo Online, Germanys T-Online, Hong Kongs Netvigator, Japans Nifty, Koreas Unitel and Singapores SingNet, the companies agreed to seek ways to formalize their alliance at the next meeting in December. At that Brazil gathering, IM will be a "hot topic," EarthLink President Michael McQuary said in an interview last week.

"Almost everybody in the alliance is pushing towards adopting a different standard [from AOL]," McQuary said. A decision by the group, which collectively has more than 30 million users, could influence EarthLink to drop its licensing agreement with AOL and adopt a new, interoperable IM engine instead.

AOLs policy to keep the application closed to competitors is "extremely nearsighted," McQuary said. "What if their e-mail systems would not be interoperable? That would dramatically reduce the value of the Internet."

Although AOL notified the Internet Engineering Task Force last year that the company wanted to start working on an IM standard, no specific architecture has been proposed. AOL has a history of blocking competitors attempts to interconnect other IM platforms with its own. Both AT&T and The Microsoft Network have been rebuffed, as was much smaller Odigo. Last year, AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose likened Odigos attempts to interconnect its IM with AOLs Instant Messenger to hacking. AOL executives were not available to comment last week.

The process of creating an IM standard is, nevertheless, on its way.

"The working group is focused on developing a common data model and operational semantics for instant messaging and presence," said Mark Day, co-chair of an IETF working group dedicated to IM.

IM standardization by the EarthLink-Nifty group is the next logical step to come from an effort to allow their customers to "roam" on one anothers networks. For example, EarthLink members traveling to Japan now can dial in to a special number. While a similar service is provided to nonalliance ISPs by intermediary companies, McQuary said EarthLink and the other ISPs wanted to cut out the middleman. The group has also discussed ways to band together to buy equipment and services to take advantage of their combined size with large orders.

These dynamics are taking place while media giants such as The Walt Disney Co. and Viacom conduct exploratory meetings with EarthLink, as they assess whether joining forces would make sense. International media companies and telecoms seeking to gain a U.S. presence have also expressed interest in talking to EarthLink, McQuary said.

Wireless and broadband initiatives are becoming hallmarks of EarthLinks service, as it expands into an increasing number of devices. The company plans to add cable modems and satellite services to its offerings, which already include DSL, pagers and PCs.

IM will be available in various countries and on various devices if the international efforts succeed.