Back a long, long time ago, I had my first encounters with instant messaging, in the form of AOL’s Instant Messenger. An outgrowth of the way things worked with those original bulletin board systems, it sure was convenient, being able to have an online text-based conversation with someone without having to actually talk to them, or put up with the delays of email.
Now in those days, AOL was a proprietary service. You could email fellow members, but that was it. All content, including forums and other information areas, were presented in a special application. You did not have access to the rest of the Internet; in short AOL in those days was the epitome of a walled garden, although they justified that approach by claiming they just wanted to be family friendly.
Only later did AOL incorporate sub-par Internet access tools, including some of the worst browsers on the planet ahead of buying Netscape and sort of getting it right.
Well, instant messaging systems were traditionally proprietary. The AIM/AOL user couldn’t talk to a user of Microsoft’s messaging system, nor to someone with Yahoo! or any other IM service. I suppose the companies involved wanted to keep their customers to themselves, and encourage them to take advantages of paying services on their sites. After all, the IM services were free. However, the customer wasn’t being served by this state of affairs.
Just imagine, for example, if your telephone company restricted you to their own customers, and nobody else, and they only served one locality. If you wanted to call someone in another city, you either had to determine if that person’s phone company also served your city and sign up with them, or use another method of communication.
Now over the years, there have been open source messaging systems, and some apps that provide official or unofficial support for the various instant messaging schemes. They can even maintain a single unified connection of sorts.
When Apple introduced iChat, they worked out a deal with AOL to support the AIM messaging system too. So you can use iChat to connect to AOL, .Mac (iCloud), and later, Face-book, Yahoo!, Google and other services. Indeed the only major holdout was Microsoft, which kept it’s large user base to itself.
Well, this week, Microsoft finally relented. The official announcement came in a posting on the Inside Windows Live blog, where they announced “”public availability of access to the Messenger network via XMPP.”
XMPP in case you want to know, stands for eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. It’s an open source messaging framework that allows a host of services to communicate with one another. This interoperability with Microsoft Messenger puts Microsoft in the strange position of, once again, embracing open standards in place of their own.
In the scheme of things, this is a vital change, and only part of an overall corporate strategy to accept open standards, rather than closed ones, but the decision only continues a trend.
For years, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser was regarded as extremely poor when it came to rendering sites accurately, forcing developers to add special MSIE coding. That’s true for The Night Owl, where we have a special .css file designed to make the site look better in Microsoft’s app.
However, recent versions of MSIE have embraced open standards, including HTML5, in essence setting aside Microsoft’s efforts to force everyone to adhere to their own special Web features. But Apple was there first.
As much as Apple has been accused of forcing everyone to exist within their own walled garden, that’s not entirely true. Yes, the iOS and Mac OS X are traditional operating systems that are licensed to paid customers, same as Windows. On the other hand, Apple built their operating system on a base of a number of open source apps. When Safari came out, Apple licensed an open source rendering engine from the Unix world, which ultimately was morphed into WebKit. Today, the vast majority of mobile browsers use WebKit, even the one in Google’s Android OS. And the fast-growing Chrome browser is also based on WebKit.
Having failed to kill QuickTime and other Apple technologies, and force their own standards upon the rest of the computing world, Microsoft has taken a far more realistic approach. These days, they still hope for Windows everywhere, while at the same time building software for Mac OS X and, now, the iOS.
If you never used Microsoft Messenger, of course, none of this makes any difference at all. If you were stuck with having to use a third-party app, or switching from, say, iChat, to Microsoft Messenger, when you wanted to reach someone using Microsoft’s IM network, the forthcoming ability to do everything in a single program will be a revelation.
Of course, this move doesn’t mean you will begin to feel warm and fuzzy about Microsoft and Steve Ballmer. Their products, other than xBox and the Windows OS and apps, will continue to suffer in the marketplace until they can come up with some bright ideas that people really like.
But I will await that first call from a Microsoft Messenger user in iChat.
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