The other online bully
AOL is throwing its weight around in the instant messaging market

The ascent of AOL is little short of extraordinary, particularly the way it has continued to acquire ever-bigger companies, culminating in the purchase of Time Warner two years ago. However, as I have noted in this column before, the rise of AOL is not an uncomplicated story of a knight in shining armour arriving to do battle with the Microsoft dragon.

AOL did not become so successful by meekly working alongside its competitors. In the past, such corporate rough and tumble was more or less acceptable, since it came from a plucky upstart that has succeeded in shaking up the online business like no other.

But in the wake of the consummation of the AOL/Time Warner deal, the situation is rather different. It is now AOL that is the behemoth and, as such, users - and regulatory bodies - have a right to insist on a rather more circumspect deportment.

Unfortunately, it seems that AOL has not got this message. Or, more particularly, it has not got the instant message, since the area where it is most aggressive in defending its not inconsiderable market share is that of instant messaging (IM).

The company has steadfastly refused to open up its IM networks - represented by AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ - for complete interoperability with rival software. This would clearly be in the interests of users, since it would create a unified IM world where one client could access all the services. Instead, anyone who wishes to be sure that they can employ IM with anyone else must run several IM clients simultaneously.

Compare this ludicrous situation with a hypothetical fractured Web where Microsoft was able to insist that only Internet Explorer could read Microsoft-format Web pages, and where users needed to run three different browsers in order to access all the available content.

Last year, AOL had some skirmishes with Microsoft in the IM area, as the software giant tried to endow its messaging client with the ability to work with AOL's system. Given Microsoft's own predatory practices, it was easy to forgive AOL for defending itself. In the end Microsoft backed off - a novel and probably useful experience for the company.

But more recently AOL has started countering the efforts of a very different outfit trying to provide full interoperability with its systems. Cerulean Studios is tiny, but its free Trillian IM client has a big following. It is not hard to see why: as well as other useful features - including the absence of advertising - Trillian lets you run just one client to access all of the main IM systems.

As the Trillian home page hints, its creators are currently grappling with what they demurely term an "AOL connectivity bug", but in reality this is nothing less than AOL's continuing attempts to block full access by Trillian users.

Aside from the fact that a multi-billion-dollar corporation is getting increasingly heavy with an extremely small company - precisely the kind of thing it should be avoiding as the dominant player - there is also the issue of how it is framing this tussle.

Trillian wants to provide an extremely useful - and manifestly sensible - piece of software to its users. But instead of crying foul because of a potential loss of advertising that a defection by users to Trillian might entail - a reasonable complaint - AOL has invoked the "S" word: security.

As the story (click here) indicates, AOL is trying to pretend that the Trillian software hacks into its system, rather than simply accessing it like any other AOL client.

It is obvious why AOL is adopting this approach. Security is such an emotive issue at the moment that it hopes invoking it will stifle criticism of its response to Trillian. But for AOL to cite security in this context is as risible as Microsoft claiming the antitrust lawsuit is not about monopolistic practices but "the right to innovate". Both cases reveal corporate bullies who prefer slick obfuscation to fair competition.

Next week: Sun's earthquake

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This was first published in February 2002

 

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