The news that Lotus Sametime 7.5 will federate (aka interoperate) with AOL and the AOL Clearinghouse was welcomed with applause by most observers at Lotusphere, where the announcement was made. That’s not surprising—Lotus users want and need interoperability as much as the next guy, and IBM has been slow to embrace federation. But the move also has much broader ramifications for the IM market, and for IT executives looking to make their enterprise IM decisions soon.
The ability for one IM client to “talk” to another is critical if instant messaging is really going to become dominant in the workplace. Some critics argue that IM should stay closed, mainly for security and productivity reasons. But they ignore the fact that any truly successful communications tool must allow users to, well, communicate—and I challenge you to find a successful company that doesn’t regularly interact with people outside the organization, be they partners, suppliers or customers.
A year ago, the only option companies had for achieving IM interoperability was to deploy an IM gateway from Akonix, FaceTime or IMlogic on top of their consumer or enterprise IM systems. That added cost and vendor complexity. But what a difference 12 months can make, especially in an emerging market. Early in 2005, Microsoft announced federation between its Live Communications Server and AOL, MSN and Yahoo—essentially eliminating the need for LCS users to deploy a separate gateway. The catch? Those users still have to pay an additional fee for the interoperability service.
Now, IBM has finally jumped on board, delivering built-in integration with AOL and Yahoo (Google Talk is on the horizon) at no additional charge. Who’s missing from that list? Microsoft, of course (either MSN or LCS)—and that’s a big gap, since the workplace is divided into Notes/Sametime and Outlook/Communicator users. But there’s a potential way around it.
IBM’s deal gives users access to the AIM Clearinghouse service, which lets them connect to the AOL network, other Sametime users, and partners, vendors and customers on other enterprise instant messaging services participating in the AIM Clearinghouse service. (AOL’s existing federation partners include Microsoft, Reuters, Jabber, Antepo, Omnipod, Communicator, Parlano, Thomson Financial and Pivot Solution’s IMTrader service.) The clearinghouse includes routing services to introduce two secure networks and provide for the correct addressing and delivery of instant messages; and translation services, required because different instant messaging systems use different protocols. Theoretically, at least, by using the AOL Clearinghouse, IBM users could IM Microsoft users, too.
The protocol issue is a big one. The fact is, there are two ways for IM to achieve interoperability: one-to-one partnerships that rely on gateway services, like AOL’s; and standard protocols that allow different messaging systems to interoperate “out of the box.” The leading such standard is SIMPLE, although many others use the more open XMPP standard (Google Talk is the latest entrant here). But with IM leader AOL on its own proprietary OSCAR protocol, and many other enterprise IM vendors using a modified version of SIMPLE, the latter option isn’t an option today.
On the one hand, that’s too bad—automatic interoperability takes the guesswork out of the equation for IT executives, who don’t need to worry about whether their vendor taps into the right clearinghouses or has entered into the right partnerships. And it costs less, too. But clearinghouses have their advantages—most notably the added security that comes from proprietary code bases (which minimize the ability of malware to spread) and monitored networks that can, in theory, better track threats across the system.
With IBM’s embrace of AOL’s Clearinghouse, that model certainly has a leg up on the standards-based approach. For now, at least, IT executives looking to offer interoperability to their end users still need to relay on their IM vendors to make that happen. The good news is that now both Microsoft and IBM shops have a choice, and IT executives don’t need to look beyond their core vendors for the capability.
The bad news comes mostly for the IM gateway vendors, whose value is increasingly diminished. No longer necessary for interoperability services, they still offer security and control—but most enterprise IM vendors do, too. And telephony vendors selling real-time communications dashboards with built-in IM capabilities also need to be on guard: Today, they don’t have any direct partnerships that enable clearinghouse capabilities—and IBM’s Sametime client is now effectively and RTCD, stepping up the competition even more. (More on that next month.)