Microsoft Corp. is developing a licensing program for third-party instant messaging clients and services that want to continue accessing its .Net Messaging Service, but it comes with a catch.
Microsoft cant guarantee that formal licensing terms and conditions will be ready in time to meet the Oct. 15 cutoff it set for blocking unauthorized IM clients and services from connecting into its messaging network because of security and privacy concerns.
“Its likely going to take longer than (Oct. 15) for formal licensing,” said Lisa Gurry, group product manager for Microsofts MSN. “Theres a lot of work that has to be done. … It will be more of a long-term process.”
Last week, Microsoft began notifying some of the affected third parties about the change last week, but Gurry said the company doesnt know the full extent of other clients and services connecting into its IM network.
In a certified letter viewed by eWEEK, Microsoft pointed third parties to an online form to be considered for a “possible licensing relationship with Microsoft.” The form asks for such information as contact information, products accessing the .Net Messaging Service and number of users.
Gurry said the Redmond, Wash., software maker decided to block unauthorized access primarily for the same reason it is requiring users of older versions of MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger to upgrade: to improve the networks security and privacy.
“Ideally, wed know the folks on the network,” Gurry said. “The way third-party services are being built without our permission, we dont know who is on the network.”
But developers of open-source IM clients say that while upgrading clients might improve security, blocking third-party access wont.
“Using security as an excuse to apply stricter licensing on competing software is … just ridiculous,” wrote Martin Öberg, project manager for Miranda IM, in an e-mail interview. “If their protocol was secure, then a badly written client would never be able to do anything harmful.”
Unauthorized access also adds a burden to the messaging network running on Microsofts servers, Gurry said. Microsoft must maintain the networks quality of service but has no control over traffic coming from other clients and services. Microsoft has 100 million worldwide users of its IM service.
Next page: Will licensing help or hurt IM industry?
Will Licensing Help or
Microsofts call for licensing has sparked confusion and debate among the developers and operators of third-party clients and services, many of which allow users to log into multiple IM networks—such as MSN, Yahoo and America Online—through one client. Some view Microsofts licensing plans as an important step toward formalizing and improving access, while others worry that the software makers intentions are aimed at thwarting third parties.
Officials at Jabber Inc., which sells a commercial IM platform based on the open-source Jabber protocol, said they want to work out an arrangement with Microsoft, but if it cant be done by the deadline, they would end MSN access. The Denver company received a letter from Microsoft and plans to complete the online form.
“This is the first time any of the big three (IM services) has formalized communications and reached out and said it is asking for cooperation,” said Rob Balgley, Jabber president and CEO. “We really dont want to supply rogue gateways to large commercial consumer providers.”
Formal licensing could help the industry, he said, because currently Jabber and other third-party IM vendors cannot guarantee customer access to the MSN, Yahoo or AOL. Instead, Jabber, which has 80 business customers, has built gateways to access those networks protocols because some customers want access, he said.
Cerulean Studios, the developer of one of the most popular multiprotocol IM clients, Trillian, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Next page: The open-source IM community responds.
-Source IM Community Responds”>
Members of the open-source IM community (which includes the Gaim and Miranda IM projects) expressed skepticism about Microsofts move. If Microsoft charges for a license, that could block them out since they are free services.
Sean Egan, a lead developer for Gaim, wrote in an e-mail interview that he and other developers are still weighing their options. Microsoft would be likely to provide the client a license since Gaim is one of a few that allows non-Windows users access into the messaging service, he wrote.
“However, I worry that pursuing a license might legitimate MSNs demand that third-party clients need licenses,” Egan wrote. “As the law was explained to me when AOL attempted to block us from its AIM network, MSN has no legal right to refuse access to its servers in the (United States).”
Even when one of the major IM networks has tried to block access, third parties generally have found ways around the roadblocks by supporting any new protocols, third-party providers say. Gurry said that for now Microsoft will be using a technological approach, not a legal one, to enforce its ban on unauthorized IM clients and services.
Microsoft has been a past proponent of interoperability among IM services, having sought to connect MSN Messenger into America Online Inc.s Instant Messenger service in 1999 and joining other companies in calling for AOL to be required to open its AIM service as part of its merger with Time Warner. In May, Microsoft and AOL also agreed to work on IM interoperability as part of a settlement of antitrust litigation between the companies.
Microsoft remains supportive of interconnecting its IM service with other parties, Gurry said,”but with the right business terms, and customer protections need to be in place before we move forward with interconnection agreements.”
But for Miranda IMs Öberg, Microsoft needs to do more to prove it supports true interoperability. He believes that the first of the big three commercial IM providers to embrace openness will win in the IM market.
“Any cooperation worth mentioning would mean that they publish the protocol specs, allows users to freely choose which client to use and that they dont put any restrictions on what functionality the developers add to their clients,” Öberg wrote. “However, that doesnt really sound like (Microsoft), does it?”