AOL and Microsoft square up in the message ring

Imagine the furore if Microsoft dominated the instant messaging arena and blocked people with rival products from communicating...

Imagine the furore if Microsoft dominated the instant messaging arena and blocked people with rival products from communicating with its users.

Imagine the outrage if it bought its biggest competitor and neutered it. Imagine if it apparently used a third party's code in its access software without permission. Best of all, imagine if it went around buying giant media conglomerates, such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

If Microsoft so much as breathes out of turn, the press is on its back, trashing the Evil Empire and proclaiming the end of civilisation as we know it. Look at what happened to the proprietary Microsoft Network, for example. When it was launched in 1995, Microsoft's enemies (rival suppliers) tried to get the US Justice Department to stop the launch of Windows 95.

But there is a company with 31 million paying subscribers to a proprietary Internet service that doesn't offer standard Internet POP3 mail. And if you use this service to save a picture from a Web page, you may not get what you expect but an odd format called Art.

As you guessed, I hope, a long time ago, I am talking about America Online.

AOL dominates instant messaging with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ, which it bought. To dominate the US online service market, it took over Compuserve, its only significant rival. (It also bought Netscape and Winamp, among others.) And, last week, a court told AOL to stop distributing version 6 of its access software after Playmedia obtained a preliminary injunction because it contained code it had licensed to Winamp.

Well, little accidents happen in large corporations but I don't think there is any doubt about AOL's plans for world domination. The huge CNN/Time/Warner Brothers empire is not something you pick up on the side.

And as analyst Gartner pointed out, there is also no doubt that AOL is heading for exactly the same market as Microsoft in offering Web-based services for presence, authentication and notification. I'm looking forward to the two companies having a terrific scrap, but for users' sakes, I'd like the result to be decided on merit.

Microsoft isn't all good, but it isn't all bad either. The same goes for AOL. The truth is not served by trivialising the competition into a battle between Good and Evil.

Jack Schofield is computer editor of the Guardian

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