July 9, 2002

Why is Jabber's open standard important for instant messaging?

- by Tina Gasperson -
If you use instant messaging clients and you're familiar with the Open Source
community, you've probably heard the term "Jabber." It's an open protocol for
instant messaging that is similar in function to Yahoo! Messenger, AIM and
others. Nice idea, especially if you're an advocate of Free Software and open
standards. But other than that, who really cares, especially since none of the
popular, tested, reliable IM services cost a penny?
Instant messaging (or IM) began as a natural evolution
of the chat rooms made popular by AOL and Compuserve in the early 1990s. It is
a way for people to get online, see if their "buddies" are online, and send text
messages that immediately appear on the screen, kind of an on-demand, on-the-fly
private chat room. In 1996, a company called Mirabilis introduced ICQ ("I seek
you"), which was the first instant message service, though they didn't call it
that back then. "ICQ will totally change the way people work on and surf the
Net," prophesied Sefi Vigiser, president of Mirabilis Ltd., in the original press release.
"From now on, every log-in to the Internet is an invitation to a social
experience. When logging in, the user will know if his friends and colleagues
all over the world are on-line, thus enabling him or her to easily contact them
in real time by text, voice or video or any other user-to-user application."

At least there was one dot-com startup that didn't bust. That new technology
from Mirabilis (now known as ICQ.com) spawned imitations from Microsoft, AOL,
Yahoo!, and many others. In fact, AOL acquired Mirabilis in 1998 and still gives
away the messaging client as ICQ, in addition to its own AIM (AOL
Instant Messenger), which has overtaken ICQ in popularity. Instant messaging on
the whole has become so widely-used that for many individual users it has taken
the place of long-distance telephone calls to family and friends, much like
email has arguably obliterated the custom of writing and mailing letters via
postal mail.

Likewise, corporate America has caught on to the money and time-saving benefits
of instant messaging, with some directing employees to first "IM" contacts
before calling to make sure they're available, avoiding wasted long-distance
charges, or eliminating those long-distance calls entirely by requiring that
conversations take place completely via instant messaging.

Just about all of this IM activity is hosted on public servers set up
specifically to handle instant messaging traffic. The servers are, of course,
owned by the various companies providing the IM services. All of it is available
without charge, so far. But what if the companies decide it is time to start
charging?

"It may appear that these IM services are being
provided free of cost," says Viswanath Gondi, a Harvard Graduate School of
Design student who has provided several Jabber instant messaging servers. "But
our data is being locked into these services. Imagine the problems we would
face if one day [the proprietary services] would coolly declare IM to be a paid
service. All our contacts will be locked in, and it
would be impossible to get all the contacts back in again on another free
service. We will have to pay up, whatever the cost may be to get uninterrupted
service."

For personal users who have amassed hundreds of contacts, having them taken
hostage could be quite a nuisance. But for corporations who are depending on
services like .NET Messenger Service, losing access to
their data could be disastrous.

"It will be very difficult
to get out of the problem if public IM service has interwoven with our process
flow. It is like having a free Yahoo! mail account for all the employees and
finding one day that pop access to the account is being blocked," says Gondi.
"One day a company may find all its IM messages blocked/truncated because it
did not subscribe to the premium service. Also, all the messages pass
through their servers and there is no guaranteed service. So what do we do? We
need IM capability in our office, but cannot put in a lot of money to
develop or out-source IM server software."

That's where the openness of Jabber comes to the rescue. Because Jabber is an open
protocol, no one can ever close it up and take anyone's data or messages
hostage. "Jabber is to instant messaging what SMTP is to email," says Gondi. For
example, Jabber Inc., which owns the trademark "Jabber" but not the Jabber
protocol, is a supporter of the Jabber Open Source effort. Jabber Inc. is using
the Jabber protocol to create enterprise-level solutions for companies like HP,
Disney Internet Group, BellSouth, and RE/MAX.

The Jabber Software Foundation is working to have the Jabber protocol
included in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) collection of RFCs
(request for comments). The foundation recently submitted an Internet-draft that outlines in great detail the Jabber protocol. But as of yet,
the draft hasn't been accepted as an official document by the IETF.

One of the nice things about Jabber is that it can communicate with other IM
systems, in theory, "if the other side is willing to play the game. AOL and recently Yahoo have been
blocking connections from other messaging systems," says Gondi.

Jabber, Inc., is sponsoring the upcoming JabberConf Americas 2002 conference dedicated to "accelerating development of the Jabber technology, marketplace, and standards." More information is available at www.jabberconf.com.

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