I have heard much debate and outrage over America Online's actions against Cerulean Studios, makers of the popular instant messaging client, Trillian. Our own Don MacVittie has found himself on the Trillian side of the debate, claiming that AOL has no right to block developer access to its public IM network (see "AOL Instant Messaging Lock-Out, an Update"). But like other eclectic groups, the Network Computing staff has its share of conflicting opinions, and I disagree with Don on this one. Instead, I offer the following trollish statement: "Trillian clients have no business connection to AOL, which completely justifies AOL keeping them out." Now while I am aware I've angered a mob of Internet users, common sense will prove I’m right.
AOL did not invent instant messaging. The Unix "talk" tool can be considered a form of instant messaging, and that has been around for decades. There was a time when the AOL IM network only worked with the AOL client, back before there were buddy lists. This was a unique service, and it was only for AOL members. But then the AIM client was created. Originally, AIM was invented so that non-AOL users could easily communicate with AOL users. It was made for AOL by AOL, and it was designed to communicate across the Internet so that Net users didn't have to install or subscribe to AOL. Yahoo and Microsoft weren't on the radar screen at all, and the Internet at large still relied upon ICQ and the IRC chat client.
Then along came Trillian users. They're mad that AOL kicked them out, some calling the issue "an extravagant sign of monopoly." Hang on. A monopoly? Just because AIM is a popular product, that does not make it a monopoly. Has AOL sued ICQ, IRC, Jabber, MSN, Yahoo or any other instant-messaging vendors because they send and receive instant messages? Has AOL's IM software uninstalled competitors' products during the installation process? Is it impossible to use Yahoo messenger while dialed into AOL? No. The only issue AOL objects to has to do with non-AOL software using the AIM network. A large user base does not in and of itself automatically create a monopoly.
Who Pays for AIM?
AOL has to pay for the hardware, software, maintenance, administrative, salary and bandwidth costs associated with running the AIM network. That's a significant chunk of change. The money to cover these costs comes from advertisements. Since Trillian blocks ads, this ends up costing AOL money. It's like the post office going through every copy of Network Computing, ripping out the ads, and then sending them off to subscribers. The readers would still get the same content, but Network Computing wouldn't last long.
Likewise, consider convenience. Say someone mirrored content from Network Computing, Network World, and CNET all in one location, sans ads, simply because frequenting three Web sites isn't as convenient as visiting one. Ignoring obvious copyright issues, that mirroring act would end up costing all of these publications significant amounts of money.
There Are Alternatives
All arguments aside, AOL actually offers a protocol for non-AOL clients. It's called TOC, and developers can use it freely.
AIM uses the OSCAR protocol, which is what Trillian has been reverse engineering. TOC doesn’t have any ads, and it doesn't support buddy icons, file transfers and some additional features of AIM. Big deal. This is why we have FTP. Trillian can create its own protocols for Trillian-to-Trillian user communication. Mac OS X users have been using a program called "Fire," which is similar to Trillian but uses the TOC protocol. Fire users haven't been booted. If Trillian used TOC and got around its shortcomings instead of trying to hack through AOL's flagship product, everyone would be happy.
Ignoring the client-choice issue, just bear in mind that all AIM messages are sent via clear text across the Internet, and there is no guarantee of service. If your enterprise is heavily dependent on instant messaging, you should roll out your own service, using client/server solutions from companies such as Jabber and Vypress. Otherwise you'd be outsourcing important services without a Service Level Agreement.