The Internet is flat; AOL just doesn't know it

The online giant makes a halfhearted attempt at opening its instant messaging service

In his bestselling book, The World Is Flat, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman observed that geography is no longer an advantage in today's globalized economy. There's no guaranteed "high ground"; a company in the United States doesn't have any inherent advantage over a company in Bangalore or Shanghai.

Technology is what created this new world. Nowhere is this leveling of the playing field more evident than in the field of information technology -- and in open source in particular. If the world is flat, the Internet is Kansas. So why is AOL still trying to act like an online superpower?

Last week, to much fanfare, AOL announced a new SDK (software development kit) for its AIM instant messaging service. For the first time, independent developers will be able to build services and plug-ins designed to ride on top of the AIM protocol and servers.

AOL has dubbed its SDK Open AIM, but how open is it really? It's not open source; that much is clear. A quick scan of the license agreement reveals various other conditions, as well. Products created with the SDK are subject to usage limits. Custom clients must not be intended primarily for corporate use unless expressly approved by AOL. And developers cannot incorporate the Open AIM code into any product that allows the user to connect to an IM network other than AOL's own.

This last restriction is particularly ironic, considering that this kind of "multi-headed" capability is the main reason developers write IM clients in the first place. Popular third-party clients such as Trillian and the open source Gaim have long allowed users to connect to multiple IM networks. They've managed this so far through skillful reverse engineering of the providers' protocols -- and, given the terms of the Open AIM license, absolutely nothing has changed.

What is AOL thinking?

There's already a truly open IM protocol available for developers, called XMPP, that's on its way to becoming an IETF standard. Google was forward-thinking enough to make XMPP the basis of its Google Talk service. Is a proprietary SDK for the AIM protocol really giving us anything we don't already have?

AOL's answer, of course, is that Open AIM gives developers access to the AOL customer base. AIM remains the leading IM service, claiming some 63 million users. Programs such as Gaim and Trillian gain access to that service through unsanctioned hacks. If you want AOL's blessing for your AIM add-ons, Open AIM is your only answer.

And yet, although AOL may have market share today, its grip on the IM market is tenuous at best. Look at it this way: Suppose you needed water for your farm and you could pay either of two different companies to get it. One company would dig you a well. For the same price, the other one would also dig you a well, provided you bought its special kind of pipes to carry the water to your fields. Which would you choose?

Google is smart enough to realize that the real potential of its services lies not in the underlying technologies but in the customers themselves. Meanwhile, AOL seems to think it has the market cornered on wells. This is classic old-economy thinking -- a failure to recognize that the Internet, above all things, is flat.

People who talk about free software like to say there are two kinds of "free": free as in speech, and free as in beer. Open AIM proves there's more than one definition of "open" as well. It's not open like a book. More like a grave.

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