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Join the Federation To Take Back IM!

Today the world of instant messaging (IM) is a disjointed mess, and it's time for a citizen's revolt. Like many people, I use IM throughout the day for business and personal communications. It's maddening when I want to send an IM to a user only to realize that they're unreachable because they happen to be on a different network. IM should function like email or the phone system where one address/number lets you communicate with everyone.

The obstacles in this case are three big companies: AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft. Each wants to keep their networks closed, thereby forcing consumers to use their brand of software and effectively using their size to eliminate competition. Five years ago, Yahoo! and Microsoft were calling for then-leader AOL/ICQ to open their network to allow others to compete. They even successfully petitioned the FCC to restrict AOL's future developments before approving the AOL/Time Warner merger. When it was convenient for their business goals, Microsoft and Yahoo! waved the interoperability flag, but now that both companies have built substantial IM communities with their own closed networks, they have lost their passion for open networks.

There's no technical reason IM systems can't all work together, and consumers should pressure the big three to make this a reality. The only thing preventing interoperability from happening is consumer actions. To begin mobilizing consumers I started the IM Federation - an initiative designed to encourage use of open standards and open directories.

Recently, Google announced their intention to federate their new IM network with SIPphone and Earthlink. Although it's not yet in effect, it's a positive step. Now we need consumers to take action to put pressure on the big three to open their networks.

Here's how you can help:

1) Use an open standard-based IM software like Gizmo Project.

There are several good Jabber based IM clients such as Gizmo Project, GAIM, iChat, and the nifty web-based Meebo. By using one of these software programs, you can communicate with anyone on any Jabber-based system - you are not restricted to just one system. You simply have to include the other user's entire address (such as, similar to how you would address an email message. You will even see the online and away status of the user even though they are on another network, so you'll always know when they are available. This makes it possible for the world to communicate seamlessly.

Disclaimer: Gizmo Project is the VOIP my company SIPphone develops for high-quality PC-to-PC calls and low-cost calls to any phone. It now supports Jabber, an open standard for IM. This means you can IM any other Gizmo Project user and anyone on an open directory (see below).

Geographical map of call locations on Gizmo Project now with Jabber-based IM

2) Use an open directory for your Instant Messaging service which agrees to freely connect with others.

Unlike MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL, which are islands, there are more than 100 IM networks that permit other directories to send messages to their users. This means consumers are not locked into one service, but instead can choose the one that is best suited to their needs but still communicate with users on other networks. MSN, Yahoo! and AOL are locked into the proprietary mentality, wanting to keep everyone walled off from others instead of letting them connect to anyone. Make sure you're using a network that has an open directory policy.

Google Talk has promised to open their directory, but has not yet implemented this policy.

3) Consider using Jabber as your corporate IM solution with an open directory.

Linspire recently implemented its own corporate IM system and selected Jabber (they previously used AOL). With the new Jabber server, Linspire employees have complete control of their IM network and can allow connections from other Jabber networks. There are many quality servers, and most have handy features - like saving a corporate roster on the server that is immediately loaded for all employees so they don't have to manually keep track of buddies within a corporation. Every time a corporation uses Jabber, it grows the number of open directory, open standards servers.

In the dark ages of email - before open standards and open directories became popular - a Compuserve user couldn't email an AOL user who couldn't email a Prodigy user. We're still in the dark ages for IM, but just as email changed, IM can change too. There's an enormous opportunity for one of the big three to embrace open standards and leapfrog over their competitors, but it won't happen until they see consumers flocking to open directories.

I hope you'll consider supporting the IM Federation to turn the tide for IM towards open standards and directories so the whole world can communicate freely.

-- Michael
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