Microsoft will open up communication between its enterprise IM server and the public consumer-oriented IM networks run by its MSN division and by rivals Yahoo and America Online.
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The Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005 is due to ship during this year's fourth quarter and will allow users to exchange instant messages with users on AOL's Aim, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger.
"This has been the top request from our corporate customers. They have clearly told us that anything we could possibly do to make this happen would make them the happiest," said Taylor Collyer, Microsoft's senior director for LCS.
The link between LCS and the three IM networks will be provided through add-on modules that will be sold separately.
Pricing for the connectivity modules is still being worked on and will be announced later this year.
"We'll try to make it an attractive proposition. We want to put this thing within reach," he said.
Until now, this type of interoperability between LCS and the three consumer IM networks could only be accomplished by cobbling together bridges using third-party gateway products. Doing it that way is cumbersome and requires heavy lifting on the part of IT departments.
However, the new connectivity modules will plug into LCS natively "out of the box" and enable the interoperability with little configuration required from IT departments. Because the modules will be designed to work with LCS specifically, the links with the public IM networks will be more stable and secure than with third-party products, Collyer said.
"The big winner here will be the enterprise customer," he added.
Representatives from AOL and Yahoo indicated separately that the collaboration with Microsoft is a significant step for their respective IM services in the corporate market.
"This will open up new opportunities for all of us," said Brian Curry, AOL's senior director of AIM network services.
"Through our relationship with Microsoft LCS, we are able to increase the distribution, usage and presence of Yahoo Messenger while providing our users with a secure, convenient and seamless experience," said Lisa Mann, Yahoo's senior director of Yahoo Messenger.
Meanwhile, the biggest losers are the makers of IM gateway software, such as IMlogic, FaceTime Communications and Akonix Systems, said Robert Mahowald, an IDC analyst.
These suppliers have enjoyed solid sales over the past three years, thanks to the lack of interoperability in the marketplace and to the quick adoption of IM in businesses, he said.
As employees began to use consumer-oriented IM networks for work matters, IT departments scrambled to implement gateway software from these suppliers to manage and control that IM use, establishing usage policies and security safeguards. Meanwhile, Yahoo, AOL and MSN have so far declined to make their public, consumer-oriented IM networks interoperable.
But if Microsoft is building links between it server IM product and the consumer IM networks, the gateway suppliers could find their products becoming redundant, Mahowald said.
"Their days will be numbered. It's uncertain what their role will be," he said. IMlogic, FaceTime and Akonix will need to change the focus of their products to niches that Microsoft will not go into, he said.
Also significant is what Microsoft's decision may herald in the way of interoperability. While the three consumer IM networks still do not interoperate, Microsoft's action could be the first step that triggers further co-operation, Mahowald said.
"It's a really big shift in the market," he said.
"This is a step in the right direction [in terms of interoperability]," AOL's Curry said.
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service