AOL vs. Microsoft

In this week's skirmish over online messaging, who's on the consumer's side?

Topics: Microsoft, AOL,

This week, Microsoft rolled out a new instant messaging service that was supposed to let its users send “what’s up” notes to users of America Online’s similar service. But when Microsoft pushed onto AOL turf, AOL pushed back. So who’s the bad guy in this skirmish?

By Microsoft’s account, the company is trying to improve life for consumers, by making it possible for people to message each other even if they’re not using the same software. “Just as consumers expect different telephones to work with one another, so they should expect different instant messaging services to talk to each other,” Brad Chase, vice president of the Consumer and Commerce Group at Microsoft, said in a press release on Wednesday. “MSN Messenger Service is the first messaging application to offer the inter-operability people are demanding.”

But the folks at AOL balked at the idea of letting Microsoft loose among the 35 million users of AOL Instant Messenger (not to be confused with AOL’s ICQ service). On Thursday, AOL accused Microsoft of behavior “akin to hacking” for demanding that AOL users give up their messaging passwords to Microsoft in order to communicate with users of the MSN Messenger Service. Then, on Friday, the world’s largest online company reportedly blocked the world’s largest software company — preventing MSN Messenger from working with the AOL version. The company argued it was protecting its infrastructure from unauthorized use.

Like many a battle in the tech sphere, this one is fought with propaganda about freeing technology (in terms of access, not necessarily cost). In this case, AOL spent the big bucks to develop the technology and marketing for its messaging service, and now Microsoft — and other companies demanding that the industry agree upon an Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol — want access to AOL’s network of customers. Carrying the banner of public service, these competitors argue that open standards must prevail for the greater good of the Net’s users.

All of which sounds suspiciously like America Online’s argument in another war that broke out recently: the fight for open access to cable networks that are rolling out high-speed Internet access. Purportedly acting in the consumer’s interest, AOL is spearheading efforts to force cable network providers like AT&T’s Excite@Home to allow competing Internet service providers to run traffic through their cables. Competition will drive down prices, AOL argues, and give consumers more options. It will also give AOL access to a broadband network it doesn’t have to build.

So who’s really on the consumer’s side? In general, the company that’s late to the party is the one that tries to play the good-guy role, using open access for consumers as an argument to bust into someone else’s hard-won proprietary business. But, as AOL made clear this week by shutting out the MSN Messenger, companies will go to bat for the consumer only as long as it takes to beat the competition.

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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