Task force to make IM systems work together

Despite having heard proposals for three instant messaging (IM) standards, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) will likely move toward a way to make different IM systems work together, rather than select one standard for all IM services to use.

At its meeting in San Diego last week, the working group considered proposals that would have IM programs use the same protocol to provide so-called presence information, or the ability of one user to know if another is online. The protocols also would allow users to chat between different messaging systems, including America Online Inc.’s AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN messaging service.

The IETF is an international organization that oversees Internet technical standards. The three standards the task force is looking at, which were whittled down from 10, are Presence and Instant Messaging (PRIM), a new IM protocol that works over TCP/IP; an e-mail transfer protocol called Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which is the basis for SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE); and Instant Messaging Exchange Protocol (IMXP), which is based on Blocks Extensible Exchange Protocol. IETF officials have said that all three of the protocols appear to interoperate within AOL’s framework.

AOL has by far the largest number of IM users in the market. AOL’s IM and ICQ control 90 per cent of the instant messaging market, according to an estimate by iCast Corp., a now-defunct AOL rival. Competing services have complained that AOL blocks their customers from communicating with AOL’s IM users. AOL says it won’t open its IM service until other Internet services use secure protocols. Hence, AOL’s competitors asked for standards.

The IETF is most likely to accept an interoperability protocol tentatively called the Common Profile for Presence and Instant Messaging, which allows users to find and chat with users on different systems. The working group will accept comments on the proposal until Jan. 15, said Athanassios Diacakis, chief technology officer at Network Projects Inc. in Pittsburgh and a member of one of the task force’s working groups.

“Once you have interoperability, the rest is not [resolved], but [it’s] less of a problem,” he said. Diacakis is a proponent of PRIM.

Diacakis said IM services should have the option of installing a simpler IM protocol such as PRIM or IMXP.

Meanwhile, Jon Peterson, a senior architect at Level 3 Communications Inc. in Broomfield, Colo., is the IETF’s proponent for SIMPLE. When installed, SIP finds the recipient of an e-mail and “talks” with its e-mail server to identify what kind information will be transferred in the message. For example, it tells the server whether an e-mail contains HTML code or an audio file.

Since so many e-mail systems already use SIP, he said, it’s the natural choice for an IM standard. SIMPLE would also allow more complex forms of IM communication, since SIP recognizes many applications beyond the text files used in IM. That means that “SIP is swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” for current IM use, Peterson said, but for future IM use, SIP would be the most flexible option.

“Not very many people today make money off IM. What you can sell is the bundling of IM with other applications,” he said. “Instant messaging is a kind of gateway drug for other applications.”