April 28, 2004

AOL opens ICQ interface, but will anyone care?

Author: Jay Lyman

America Online last week announced a new version of its ICQ instant messaging service, based on an open programming interface known as Xtraz. Will the move to open ICQ development win the hearts of developers?

The new version features a "new and improved" user interface, more functionality, and flexible options for the service's 125 million registered users. The software offers a multi-function message window that groups incoming messages and frequent tasks for easier use, message forwarding for cell phones, and customizable "ICQ Devils" expressions, birthday alerts, games, and other features.

Most notable about the new ICQ, however, is the open API that America Online claims will enable developers to pick and choose new services as they are available and also create new ICQ features that can be built separately from the core ICQ client, delivered and automatically updated over time.

ICQ General Manager Orey Gilliam said the new ICQ Xtraz makes the IM client a platform for "fun and innovation" that can be easily and instantly scaled to meet user needs.

"With our new Xtraz technology, we can instantly extend our personal communications platform to any number of new partners who can provide content and services our users need," Gilliam said in a press release. "We also look forward to the time our users themselves are able to create new and innovative features for the global ICQ community to enjoy."

Meta Group Senior Program Manager Thomas Murphy said that since the battle over instant messaging still revolves around ubiquity, ICQ is making a play for more users and for developers, who will now be able to "pick up and plug in to an additional system.

"The thought with open source protocols is they'll achieve wider use," Murphy said. "Anytime a company is in a position where they're not one or two, the standard thing to do is go open source and use that as a way to propel yourself in the market."

Murphy -- who referred to IBM's moves with the Eclipse development platform and other, similar open source strategies -- explained that while ICQ is atop the messaging market, it is still looking for an edge over competitors such as Yahoo and Microsoft, which are also releasing new features and functionality.

"ICQ is one of the big leaders," he said. "This is another way to put competition against Yahoo and Microsoft and the other big ones."

Proponents of purebred open source instant messaging platforms such as Jabber and GAIM, meanwhile, said their platforms are the most open, and therefore still the best.

"It's a small step towards opening up developer access to the ICQ service, but doesn't really move us any closer to interoperability or truly open IM," Jabber Software Foundation Executive Director Peter Saint-Andre said. "ICQ is going to a different party than the Jabber community. They are interested in providing a full-featured IM service to users on Windows as a way to generate revenue for AOL shareholders. That's a fine goal, and it's even one from which parts of the Jabber community might learn, especially in the area of user-friendly interfaces. However, what the Jabber community has been building since 1999 is a truly open platform for instant messaging, presence, and other XML-based collaboration services."

Saint-Andre noted that Jabber's fully open protocol won approval from the IETF's Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, comparing it to the "black box" that is the ICQ protocol.

"We have open-source code libraries for every major programming language -- from Java and C to Perl, Python, and Ruby; ICQ has a Windows DLL," Saint-Andre said. "We have open source servers that anyone can run at their own domain, securely behind the firewall if desired; ICQ provides a monolithic service wherein control resides with ICQ. We have Jabber clients for every major computing platform -- on desktops, phones, and wireless devices; ICQ has a Windows client. So there is quite a difference of scale here."

Radicati Group market analyst Genelle Hung said it doesn't matter how black of a box ICQ is because the IM service is not trying to be an open source instant messaging platform, but is rather opening up its application for its own community to do things for that same community.

Hung added that while other public IM services such as Yahoo are focusing on individual resources such as music and file sharing, ICQ is building on its existing community roots to capitalize on the social networking aspects of IM that are increasingly popular.

"They already have a pretty big chunk of the pie," Hung said. "They don't need to say everyone come in."

GAIM maintainer/lead Rob Flynn said he was pleased to hear ICQ was doing something to support third-party plug-in and application developers.

"All too often, it seems like the companies that create client/server software do not want anyone else joining in their parade," Flynn said. "Although they were the first IM-style chat program that I can recall, I believe that they are, with respect to becoming extensible to third parties, arriving a bit late. However, I would say it's better late than never."

Flynn said he was looking forward to seeing what comes out of Xtraz and did not express concern that the ICQ move would seek and destroy any GAIM prospects.

"It doesn't particularly matter to me very much either way," Flynn said of ICQ's open API release. "I'm always fond of some friendly competition. In the long run, competition breeds innovation and better software. If there was no competition then there would also be no reason to improve."

Meta Group's Murphy, who referred to IM specialty components in various Linux distributions, said the fight for dominance among major IM services from Yahoo, Microsoft, and America Online centers on lack of interoperability rather than open APIs.

"The long-term thing for developers and users is that most people would love to get to a point where instant messaging protocols are standardized and you'd be able to reach several of them [with a single system]," Murphy said.

While GAIM users and Jabber jaws will likely keep their eyes on the ICQ open moves, which may even be followed by similar plays from the likes of Yahoo or Microsoft, Saint-Andre said what matters most to the open source IM community are open protocols like the ones they have standardized through the IETF.

"If the protocols are not open, a Windows DLL will provide some functionality, but won't provide an open foundation for interoperability," Saint-Andre said. "If open is good, Jabber is better."

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