The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Use Jabber!

Instant messaging has proven itself to be one of the truly "disruptive" technologies of the past few years. The primary communication medium for college- and high school-aged people is no longer the telephone, it's their computer, through the use of IM.

IM was pioneered by, of all companies, America Online. Almost from its inception, AOL allowed members to send text messages directly to each other, and maintain "buddy lists" of their friends so they could see who was online and accessible at the moment. Then came the capability to put up "away messages", which serve as a sort of text-based answering machine but with the flexibility to change the message at will.

All of this produced a completely new way of communicating. You could talk to multiple people at once. Talk while doing something else on your computer. You can know exactly who is available at the moment, and where people are if they aren't available. Many of these ideas have made their way into other mediums. For example, cell phones support similar ideas when using push-to-talk phones.

Instant messaging has become incredibly popular with young people, and is making significant inroads in corporations, government, and military environments as well. It is changing the way we communicate -- but the software and protocols we use for IM are a complete mess. There is effectively no truly standard IM protocol today, rather there are several competing protocols and IM services, which are largely not compatible with each other.

We still have AOL and its proprietary protocol. Then we have Microsoft's MSN system. And Yahoo's system. And IBM's SameTime. Even MySpace has an instant messaging component to it. What this means is that someone on AOL can't talk to someone on MSN, who can't talk to someone on Yahoo, and so on. What this really means is that people with friends on multiple networks end up having to install and use all of the client software for each network, which is a completely unworkable long-term solution.

This is not how mature, successful communications mediums are produced. Who would own a phone if they could only call other people who subscribed to the same phone company? As I said earlier, IM is becoming quite popular amongst young people -- but it's never going to become a mass-market communications tool as long as the IM world is so segmented.

Enter Jabber. Jabber is an organization that has, for several years, been developing and promoting XMPP, a true standard for instant messaging. XMPP is a protocol which supports all of the core functionality of the major IM services, such as text messaging and away messages. The difference is that XMPP is designed to be open (so that any IM network can use it) and interoperable, so that if two networks both use XMPP, users of those networks can talk to each other.

XMPP works a lot like email. With email, you have an account through an email provider, say, Verizon. Verizon has a domain for email, such as verizon.net. On Verizon, you have an account name, like xyz, and so your email address becomes xyz@verizon.net. Anyone, even someone with an email account on Google or Yahoo, can send you an email to your Verizon address, because they all use the same email protocol.

Same thing with XMPP. You get your IM account through a service provider, and have an account name on that service. So your XMPP address becomes something of the form user@service.com. Anyone on any network using XMPP can talk to you by using that address.

I firmly believe that this sort of interoperability is what is needed for IM to go to the next level. It needs to become ubiquitous, and that won't happen without interoperability. And to some degree, I've been vindicated by Google -- their Google Talk service uses XMPP and so is able to communicate with other XMPP services.

So why hasn't XMPP caught on?

Namely, because of resistance by the entrenched major players of IM. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo, have not adopted XMPP, and they control the vast majority of the IM market. They really have little reason to use XMPP, from a business standpoint. As long as you need to use AOL's proprietary protocol to talk to other AOL IM users, you will need their client and an account on their service -- which means they can deliver ads to you. If AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo suddenly support open standards, then the IM market would splinter into tons of smaller XMPP-based IM services, and the current big guns would lose their market share. To them, it's not about doing what's right, it's about doing what will maintain their bottom line.

So why don't users just have a mass exodus to XMPP-based services and leave the low-quality proprietary service behind? Because as long as people have friends on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, they will want to keep those accounts in order to talk to those people. The first people to switch networks would be without any one to talk to. Since the dominant market players are not standards-compliant, they've created a vendor lock-in that really makes it hard for people to leave.

But really, why doesn't just every IM user switch to XMPP services at once? Lack of publicity. The majority of users do not know that anything better exists, and so are happy to stay on their closed networks. We need to, somehow, make everyone aware of Jabber and XMPP, how much better it is, and then get people to start switching.

Really, though, there are absolutely no technical reasons why XMPP has not taken off. It is merely because of the above-mentioned reasons, which are largely business and political reasons. XMPP is more than capable of doing everything people are currently doing with their IM services.

So where do we go from here? Google accepting XMPP is a great start. What would be even better is if the really big players, such as AOL, also decided to do the right thing and accept XMPP. If they are so scared of losing market share, they should figure out ways to add value to their XMPP service so people would still choose to have accounts with them. Look at Google's GMail. It's just one email service in a sea of free email services, but has taken over the market since knew just what users wanted and made a great, interoperable service. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo need to do the same thing.

They're maintaining their market share, but at the expense of IM really becoming a de-facto standard for communication. Why wouldn't they want that?

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