Microsoft Boosts IM Interoperability

In a move that advances instant messaging interoperability, 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.

Microsoft is announcing this week that Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005, due to ship during this year's fourth quarter, 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," says Taylor Collyer, Microsoft's senior director for LCS.

Get Connected

The link between LCS and the three IM networks will be provided through add-on modules that will be sold separately, he says. Pricing for the connectivity modules is still being worked on and will be announced later this year, he says. "We'll try to make it an attractive proposition. We want to put this thing within reach," he says.

Until now, this type of interoperability between LCS and the three consumer IM networks could be accomplished only by cobbling together bridges using third-party gateway products, he says. Doing it that way is cumbersome and requires heavy lifting on the part of IT departments, he says.

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, he says. 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 says.

"The big winner here will be the enterprise customer," he says.

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," says 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," says Lisa Mann, Yahoo's senior director of Yahoo Messenger in a statement sent via e-mail.

New Competition

Meanwhile, the biggest losers are the makers of IM gateway software, such as IMlogic, FaceTime Communications, and Akonix Systems, says Robert Mahowald, an IDC analyst. These vendors 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 says.

As employees began to use consumer-oriented IM networks for work matters, IT departments scrambled to implement gateway software from these vendors 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 vendors could find their products becoming redundant, Mahowald says. "Their days will be numbered. It's uncertain what their role will be," he says. IMlogic, FaceTime, and Akonix will need to change the focus of their products to niches that Microsoft will not go into, he says.

Also significant is what Microsoft's decision may herald in the way of interoperability. While the three consumer IM networks still don't interoperate, Microsoft's action could be the first step that triggers further cooperation, Mahowald says. "It's a really big shift in the market," he says.

"This is a step in the right direction [in terms of interoperability," AOL's Curry says.

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