Fool.com: Supporting free and open? (News) August 18, 1999

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Supporting Free and Open?

By Paul Larson (TMF Parlay)
August 18, 1999

"Reinforcing its commitment to fostering free and open...." Whoa. Can you believe the preceding quote was how Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) started a press release? It's true. This morning, Microsoft announced its latest move in its ongoing battle to loosen America Online's (NYSE: AOL) stranglehold on the Instant Messaging market.

In the latest Battle of the Online Titans, Microsoft announced that it was openly publishing its messaging code in the hope that other programmers will incorporate the Microsoft IM system into their websites. By making it free and easily accessible to just about any Internet Service Provider (ISP), Microsoft is hoping to gather critical mass that it is badly lacking in the Instant Messaging arena. At last count, AOL had roughly 43 million users of its messaging system while Microsoft's system had approximately 1.3 million users.

The past few weeks had a few amusing days where Microsoft was acting a bit like a hacker and attempting to link its users with AOL's system without AOL's permission. AOL was successful in keeping Microsoft from its party, but this has forced Microsoft to start a party of its own.

Since Microsoft is having difficulties gaining ground in the battle by itself, the folks from Redmond went out and garnered some allies, including one of AOL's enemies from the old days. Microsoft today announced that the subscribers of Prodigy (Nasdaq: PRGY) as well as users of PeopleLink and Tribal Voice will be able to use Microsoft's messaging system by the end of the year. This follows recent news that AOL was aligning its messaging system with major ISPs Earthlink (Nasdaq: ELNK) and Mindspring (Nasdaq: MSPG). Advantage AOL at the moment, but don't count Microsoft out just yet.

In a nutshell, Microsoft is attempting to make the service AOL offers less proprietary and more a commodity. One of the major attractions of the AOL interface is its "Buddy List" and Instant Messaging system. However, it seems that it is only a matter of time before Instant Messaging will move beyond the realm of proprietary systems, allowing Internet users to chat with their friends and coworkers no matter what system people are using. Microsoft is hoping this will happen sooner than later, and AOL is doing all it can to keep its system to itself.

Perhaps I'm just too cynical a Fool, but the thought of Microsoft supporting "free and open" by opening its code had to make me giggle. Imagine if Microsoft did the same in its other battle with its operating systems a la Linux? Horses for courses, I suppose.

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