AOL Dangles an IM Solution Before Trustbusters

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America Online learns its p.r. lessons quickly. Even as it continues to deny competitors such as Microsoft, Tribal Voice and Odigo (blocked, Odigo says, six times in the past two weeks) access to its teeming Instant Messaging network, the online giant floated a proposal that would throw open the doors. Politically, the proposal is perfect for softening the scowl of trustbusters eyeing the AOL-Time Warner merger, and it's also very handy technically in that it doesn't offer any details whatsoever on how outside linkups would be allowed. That, according to AOL, is a security issue, and the company left it to the Internet Engineering Task Force to work out how standards would someday be aligned. Skeptics wonder if it's all hat and no cattle. "It's definitely in AOL's interest to present themselves to trustbusters as a company that will use its dominant position responsibly," says TIME Silicon Valley correspondent Chris Taylor. "Spiritually, the Internet is about open standards, and AOL has the opportunity here to at least pay lip service to that."

AOL has some justification for dragging its feet. Open access, it argues, could lead to hacking and — gasp! — spamming, and it rightly assumes that one of the things its 90 million registered users (who exchange 651 million messages a day) cherish about IM is that it's unadulterated by the viral threats and cybercrap that litter their traditional e-mail accounts. AOL's proposal, besides being in the play-nice-with-Washington mold that Microsoft eschewed to its peril, has the added advantage of being utterly theoretical for the foreseeable future. Said IETF co-chairman Vijay Saraswat, whose group has been mulling instant-messaging standards proposals for two years: "It will provide a lot of food for thought." Sounds like AOL's stranglehold is safe for a while; meanwhile, its image gets a nice buffing.