Seeking to end a week-long electronic war with Microsoft Corp., America Online Inc. yesterday asked several technology industry leaders to help develop a common system for people to trade instant messages on the Internet, regardless of what software they use.
AOL asked the executives to sit on a committee it has formed in an effort to advise a team of computer specialists who are creating technological standards for instant messaging.
Among the committee's initial members are some vociferous critics of Microsoft: Apple Computer Inc. interim chief executive Steve Jobs, AOL Chief Technology Officer Marc Andreessen, Real Networks Inc. Chairman Rob Glaser and Novell Inc. chief executive Eric Schmidt. AOL has not asked Microsoft to serve on the committee, but an AOL official said the software giant and its industry allies are welcome to participate if they want.
"We want to work with the rest of the industry to achieve the goal of making instant messaging work like e-mail or the telephone," said Barry Schuler, AOL's president of interactive services.
The controversy over instant messages--which appear on a recipient's computer screen almost as soon as they are sent and allow "real time" typed communication among people who are on the Internet--began last week when Microsoft introduced its MSN Messenger software, which allows people to reach not only other users of that product but also the 40 million people who use AOL's Instant Messenger software. Previously, both sender and recipient had to use the same type of software to be able to trade messages.
AOL immediately accused Microsoft of making an "unauthorized intrusion" into its data network and began to jam incoming messages from Microsoft users. Microsoft adapted with new versions of its software, which AOL also foiled.
AOL last week also blocked users of software made by Yahoo Inc. and Prodigy Communications Corp. from sending messages to AOL users.
Microsoft yesterday questioned whether AOL's committee approach was a stalling tactic to delay opening its popular messaging network to rivals. Microsoft contends that its software is the quickest way to promote "open standards" on the Internet and argues that AOL should simply stop blocking it as well as software developed by Yahoo and Prodigy.
Such a step would be "the most practical and fair" interim solution until a common standard is reached, executives of Microsoft, Yahoo, Prodigy, Excite AtHome Inc. and AT&T Corp. argued in a letter sent to AOL chief executive Steve Case yesterday.
The executives called the electronic thrusting and parrying of the last week "an unproductive game of cat and mouse."
Microsoft has questioned why AOL, which aspires to be a leader among Internet businesses, was not a formal participant in a panel set up by the Internet Engineering Task Force, a consortium of technology specialists and businesses, to develop a common standard for instant-messaging technologies.
AOL yesterday said that it will begin to "work closely" with the task force. The company said the advisory committee it was forming would collaborate with the panel, lending a business perspective to the group's largely technical discussions. AOL has voiced concerns that hasty development of a common standard could create problems with unsolicited messages, commonly known as "spam."
"While technology is one piece of the puzzle, you have very real business issues as well," Schuler said. "We want to ensure we don't repeat history and get the same holes we have with e-mail that allow spam and hacking and all sorts of other awful things to happen."
Schuler cautioned that standards will take "a long time to develop." In the interim, he said, AOL would be willing to work with other companies to promote interoperability.
But Schuler maintained that Microsoft's approach compromises the security of Instant Messenger users who also are AOL subscribers by requiring them to divulge their AOL user names and passwords.
"We hope they [Microsoft] will enter into a legitimate business relationship with us to offer interoperability," he said. "But they first have to stop hacking into our network."