In the wake of Microsoft's efforts to block unauthorized instant messaging clients from its .NET Messenger network, rival Yahoo! is following suit -- while also considering ways to provide access to competitors' networks.
Last week, a Yahoo! user survey asked visitors to its Web portal whether they'd consider purchasing a multi-network IM client -- similar to Cerulean Studios' Trillian.
Specifically, the survey inquired as to whether users would be willing to pay "a small fee" for an IM client that could access other networks, such as America Online's AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ, and Microsoft's MSN.
Yahoo! spokespeople played down the significance of the survey. However, the company has relied on similar surveys prior to launching other paid products in the past. For instance, Yahoo! has questioned users on whether they'd shell out for premium multimedia content -- just prior to launching such services.
"We are continuously researching a variety of topics to better our understanding of user needs and behavior," said Yahoo! spokesperson Mary Osako. "We have fielded numerous surveys on a variety of topics that have not manifested themselves in anything beyond a simple survey."
But as Trillian has faced in the past, any effort by a Yahoo! IM client to tap into the networks of Microsoft and AOL is likely to be met with heavy resistance. The experiment is especially ironic considering that Yahoo! hasn't made it easy for unauthorized third-party clients to access its own network.
Additionally, Yahoo! doesn't seem to be relaxing that policy. Quite the opposite: a recently announced, mandatory upgrade for its earlier IM clients is likely to boot unauthorized clients from its service.
The upgrade, which must be completed by Sept. 24, ensures that users have IM clients that are compatible with changes in the Yahoo! network. For that reason, Yahoo! Messenger users must upgrade their software by the end of September, or risk being kicked off the system. The upgrade requirement pertains to Windows versions earlier than 5.0, Mac earlier than 2.0, and Unix earlier than 1.02.
But Yahoo! said most of its users already have later versions of its IM clients, and wouldn't be affected by the required upgrade as a result. Instead, it's likely that unauthorized, third-party clients -- a number of which use older versions of the Yahoo! protocol -- could be cut off from the system after the Sept. 24 deadline.
Cerulean Studios responded to the Yahoo! deadline by issuing a patch to its Trillian Basic and Pro 1.0 clients, aimed at circumventing whatever changes the Web portal makes to its IM network.
For its part, Yahoo! said the mandatory upgrade was designed to implement new, unspecified spam-blocking features.
"Because fighting spam is a top priority, we are proactively implementing preventative measures to help keep Yahoo! Messenger the high-quality environment our users have come to expect," Osako said. "If this upgrade affects the way in which other services will interact with Yahoo! Messenger, it is merely a byproduct of our efforts to help protect our users from potential spammers."
If Yahoo! does proceed with launching a multi-network IM client, it would need the permission of AOL and Microsoft -- lest it touch off another round of the instant messaging interoperability wars.
While the major IM networks continue to spar frequently with Cerulean Studios and its peers, the giants had a major spat among themselves in years past. In 1999, Microsoft's launch of a version of the MSN Messenger client -- which included AIM connectivity -- touched off a series of changes to the AIM protocol to keep Microsoft out, followed by tweaks to MSN Messenger to restore connectivity. Yahoo! also briefly attempted AIM connectivity.
AOL has steadfastly refused to open its systems to all but a few close partners, citing security concerns. Last year, the company worked with Apple Computer to launch an AIM-compatible client with private domain features. Earlier this month, it signed a similar deal with financial information giant Reuters.
Meanwhile, Microsoft seems to have changed its earlier tune. After releasing the early MSN Protocol publicly during its fight with AOL -- and partaking in industry interoperability efforts like IMUnified and IMFree.org -- Microsoft in recent weeks has begun clamping down on third-party clients, including those using its old protocol.
Like Yahoo!, the company instituted a mandatory upgrade, ostensibly for security purposes. It also began encouraging developers of unauthorized, third-party clients to apply for "certification" to continue using the .NET Messenger network. Details of the certification process are not yet known, and several developers seeking certification told InstantMessagingPlanet that Microsoft has yet to contact them.
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.
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