Sunday, August 1, 1999 by Dave Winer.
I've been following the public battle over the last week or so between Microsoft and AOL over Instant Messaging. So much has been written on this subject, it's so confusing!
I think I've read it all, and asked questions of the people involved, and gotten some answers, and the issues are actually fairly simple, because we've been here before, it's just a loop. But first, a little background..
I open my Instant Messaging client and double-click on your name in a list of contacts or "buddies".
A window opens. At the top is a big blank area. At the bottom, a three-line text area, and a Send button.
I type in the three-line text area. If you're watching, a message appears on your screen saying "Dave Winer is typing now." When I click on Send or hit Enter, your computer chimes, and the text I was typing appears in the big blank area, on both our computers.
Then you can reply, and I can reply to you, we go back and forth until we're finished. You can leave the window open, and if a thought occurs to you later, you can type it in, and if I'm still there, I'll see it right away.
An Instant Messaging client knows more about the people you communicate with. It knows when they are using their computer or not, but only if they choose to tell you, or if they remember to. This can be a problem! Sometimes I leave my computer and forget to tell the Instant Messaging client that I'm leaving. If you send me an instant message at that time you may think I'm rude, but I just forgot to log off. This is different from email. People are surprised when they get an instant response to an email message, but they expect an instant response with Instant Messaging.
Another difference is that Instant Messages are presumed to be short. I tried an experiment the other day with Microsoft's new IM client. I pasted a copy of a brief email message into the IM window, but it truncated the message, sending only the first few lines.
I was surprised to see that Microsoft's client didn't understand little bits of HTML included in the messages. I tried enclosing a bit of text in italics, and the characters passed thru without interpretation. I found this surprising because Microsoft says that HTML belongs everywhere. Why not in the IM client?
Another difference is that the protocols for email are ancient and standardized. The protocols for Instant Messaging are in flux and are not standardized.
If you want to try it out, and if you use Microsoft's system, you can reach me at email@example.com.
I'm not promising an essay in each conversation, but I leave it turned on while I work, for now at least. If you have a thought to share or a simple question to ask, send me a message.
However, if you use AOL's instant messaging system, you probably will not be able to send me a message. This is because there is no standard protocol for IM. There is no agreement between Microsoft and AOL to allow them to reach users of the other's instant messaging system. This has been what the fuss was about for the last couple of weeks. Microsoft believes it should be able to talk to AOL's server, and AOL isn't sure whether they want to let them do that.
Microsoft must be just as reluctant to allow open access to their servers. When I asked this week, I was told that there were no APIs that would allow developers to write software that interfaces to Microsoft's servers. It makes sense, after all, what's in it for them? The only space that's considered to have any value is the client, because that's where the ads appear. If I use Microsoft's server to feed messages to and from my IM client, then Microsoft does all the hard work and I get all the ad revenue. In other words, the eyeballs are mine and the headaches are Microsoft's.
However, unless I'm missing something, that's exactly what Microsoft wants AOL to do for them. This is the disconnect. They're smart people up there at Microsoft. They must have considered the possibility of opening their servers to other clients. So far they've only whipped up a frenzy of religious zeal about open protocols (of course everyone supports open protocols), but they have steered the discussion away from the bigger issue -- who pays for the servers?
For an example, consider stock quotes. Right now I can log onto a variety of different public and free servers to get real-time stock information. But if I want to write a script to implement a trading strategy, watching for certain events and triggering a trade or a pager message when they happen, I'm basically out of luck, unless I want to confront thorny copyright and intellectual property issues. (It's possible to parse the HTML text returned by the public servers, but this clearly wasn't the intent of the information providers, and is possibly outside their license agreement. And it's an unreliable approach, the website you're parsing can change its format at any time, and that would break the application.)
The economic problem is that scripts can't read ads. So no one will provide the service for free, as they do for the ad-sponsored service. We've discussed this at length on UserLand.Com, and our conclusion is that to crack this nut we'll have to wait for an open stock exchange, one that competes with NASDAQ and the NYSE and others, one based on freely available, real-time, public trading info (probably formatted in XML).
When this develops, there will be an explosion of interesting software. Given the pace of innovation in the Internet industry, especially as it relates to the stock market, I expect this to happen within months if not weeks.
The Domain Name System -- another confusing economic quagmire. This is the fight over who owns .Com.
Instant Messaging is like DNS in many ways. It's a name system, it binds a person to a computer. If you have control over the DNS, as Network Solutions does, you have control of the core of the Internet.
Similarly, in the struggle for Instant Messaging, the winner, if there is one, will control real-time access to Internet users.
Justifiably, neither AOL or Microsoft want to operate ad-less servers for the other's clients. What's in it for them other than eBay-like headaches. Keeping a huge server farm running 7-by-24 is an expensive thing to do. AOL and Yahoo (another contestant) have more experience at this, but Microsoft may be catching up. (Hotmail appears to be running on Windows NT now, not Unix,as it was when they acquired it.).
And in all this, there's a developer question. There are a bunch of interesting apps to be built off Instant Messaging. I could see an outliner used to manage multi-tasking and chat-based projects. Integrate chat with project management and web development. Transcripts of chats on websites hosted by Yahoo or Tripod or Xoom? Another ad opportunity. More community plays. AOL with a developer community of specialized apps building off their service, competing with a similar developer community around Microsoft. Realistically, based on all we know about the software industry, how likely is it that Microsoft will share its developers with AOL and vice versa? It's not likely, and therefore "open standards" are not very likely either.
How are the Instant Messaging giants thinking about this? I don't really know. The public statements so far have been about small things.The real question is who will be first to decisively open up their services to other developers.
It could be that the only way to sort out all this stuff is for there to be publicly owned, non-profit servers that provide free information and connections, and scale up as the Internet grows. Perhaps the only way to do this, and I know this is a radical idea, is to have an Internet property tax, like real estate property taxes.
Both AOL and Microsoft would pay a large share of the money to keep such servers operating, as they pay taxes in Washington and Virginia to provide transportation, education, police and fire protection, all the public services, in the non-cyber world.