AOL and Lotus to test IM interoperability

America Online Inc. (AOL) named its first instant messaging system interoperability test partner Tuesday: IBM Corp. subsidiary Lotus Development Corp. The two companies said they would begin a trial testing communication between their messaging systems, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Lotus Sametime.

The test is part of AOL’s federally mandated progress toward allowing its AIM and ICQ applications to communicate with other instant message (IM) systems, including Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Messenger and Yahoo Inc.’s Yahoo Messenger.

As a condition of approving AOL’s merger last year with Time Warner Inc., the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required AOL to open its IM applications to allow communication with rival systems. AOL assured the FCC in late July that its progress toward interoperability is on track and testing with other systems would begin within the next few months.

AIM currently has more than 100 million registered users. IBM and Lotus do not break out user numbers relating to Sametime installations, according to a spokesman.

AOL and Lotus said the interoperability test would evaluate how AIM and Sametime communicate with each other on a server-to-server basis using the Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), one of the IM standards currently being considered by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

No time frame is available for testing to be completed, said AOL spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan. She wouldn’t comment directly on whether AOL plans to announce tests with other IM systems.

“This is our first trial, and this is where the focus of our energy is,” she said.

Lotus and AOL have been partners for several years, and Sametime has featured limited interoperability with AIM since early 1999. With the Sametime client, users could log in to their AIM accounts and communicate with other AIM users.

This trial seeks to extend the applications’ communications features beyond that “client-side integration,” said Jeremy Dies, the offerings manager for Lotus advanced collaboration. “We’re talking about two different kinds of interoperability.”

One analyst said that partnering with Lotus is a “baby step” and a delaying tactic for AOL, which has long resisted opening its IM systems.

“The industry is not looking for interoperability between Lotus and AOL, but between AOL and other consumer IM products,” said Meta Group Inc. vice-president Mike Gotta.

The FCC requires AOL to file periodic status reports demonstrating progress toward IM interoperability. This partnership is an easy way to fulfill the letter of the law, according to Gotta.

“I think it’s primarily a way to satisfy the requirements for progress reports. It’s a low-risk chip to throw in the game,” he said. “I don’t think it does anything for Lotus and I don’t think it does a lot for AOL.”

Gotta doesn’t expect the FCC to crack down on AOL for stalling, however, unless consumers begin complaining about IM interoperability. Right now, demands for open systems and standards are coming from AOL’s competitive rivals. Consumers are simply dealing with the situation, installing multiple IM clients or communicating in other ways, he said.

“There isn’t a mass pain point, because there’s alternatives,” Gotta said. “When the complaints come from the consumer rather than the competitive sector, then I think the FCC will take action.”

As long as the FCC stays quiet and AOL sees a competitive advantage in walling off its users, Gotta predicts that AOL will continue pursuing its “Fortress AIM” strategy and stalling on interoperability.

Lotus, in Cambridge, Mass., can be reached at AOL Time Warner Inc., in New York, is at