Everyone knows you shouldn't tug on Superman's cape. But what happens when Superman tugs on Batman's cape? Superman is Microsoft, the first half-trillion dollar company whose Windows operating system is on 90 percent of the personal computers in the world. Batman is America Online, whose 17 million subscribers make it the largest Internet service provider in the world. Microsoft, Lord of the Operating System, is leading a coup to overthrow America Online, Ruler of Cyberspace. It's the battle of the Titans, King Kong versus Godzilla.
The war is being waged on several fronts, with Microsoft offering $400 rebates on new computers for buyers who sign up for three years with Microsoft Network <home.microsoft.com>, its pale imitation of AOL. America Online <www.aol.com> matched the rebate for those who sign up with CompuServe <www.compuserve.com>, also a pale imitation of AOL, now owned by AOL. And now Microsoft is considering giving away Internet access, hoping to force AOL to cut its subscription rate, knowing that's where AOL makes two-thirds of its money. But the key battle may be over a technology that lets people type computer messages to each other in real time called "instant messaging." It's also called cybersex, the secret to America Online's success.
A cross between a phone call and a letter, instant messaging lets Internet users communicate with each other instantly and privately, like a phone call, usually in written messages on a computer screen, similar to a letter. IM software also lets you know when your friends or associates are online and able to cyberchat. Habitues of the virtual meat markets of America Online’s "People Connection" chat rooms are familiar with both features, which AOL calls Instant Messages and Buddy Lists.
Betting that the primary mode of communication for cybersex was about to become The Next Big Thing in business communications, two years ago several companies came out with stand-alone versions of instant messaging software that let you send and receive IMs without being on America Online. The only problem was that unless there are more than a couple of people using the software, it might as well be two tin cans attached by a string.
The only existing network of people able to exchange instant messages was America Online's subscribers, yet AOL was one of the last to come out with stand-alone IM software. And no wonder. If you don't need to be on AOL to have cybersex -- OK, cyberchat -- then you don't need to be on AOL. While AOL provides hundreds of services, from stock quotes to computer games, chat rooms are its one "killer app."
The company tends to downplay the importance of its chat rooms, since that's where dirty old men keep getting busted propositioning FBI agents pretending to be minors. Instead, it likes to say it's the world’s biggest online service because it provides the easiest gateway to the Internet. But AOL users are on the Web only a quarter of the time. The rest of the time they are in "proprietary" areas, among the most popular being chat rooms and instant messaging. According to ZDNet <www.zdnet.com>, AOL's networks transmit about 750 million instant messages a day, compared to 78 million e-mails.
Little surprise then that America Online has gone to great expense to monopolize conversation in cyberspace. It has spent billions of dollars to gobble up browser-maker Netscape, competing online service CompuServe, and ICQ, the next largest instant messenger community. When AOL did release a stand-alone version of its IM software called Instant Messenger, it was rated the worst because of its lack of features (the latest version is a big improvement, with a headline news ticker and the ability to create chat rooms, cyberspace's equivalent of a conference call). But it had one feature none of the others had -- it was the only one that could communicate with all those millions of AOL customers.
Until July 22, when Microsoft, along with Yahoo! <www.yahoo.com> and Prodigy <www.prodigy.com>, released free software that could exchange IMs with AOL users as well as other messenger services. Accusing the companies of hacking into its network, AOL quickly blocked the invading IMs, setting off a series of skirmishes in which Microsoft has been releasing "patches" to its software to get around AOL's barricades and AOL keeps erecting new ones.
Ironically, while AOL cornered the market on instant messaging the old fashioned way -- it bought out the competition -- the half-trillion-dollar Microsoft is trying to tap into AOL's customer base without offering AOL a red cent. It's easy to vilify Microsoft, but AOL is no angel either. By blocking IMs, AOL is like one phone company not letting customers from other phone companies talk to its customers. Microsoft claims it has been trying to get AOL to cooperate on a universal standard, so instant messages could be sent from one network to another like regular e-mail, but AOL officials aren't interested."
Indeed. AOL might be more interested if everyone adopted AOL's standard
and paid the company a licensing fee for instant messaging, just like everyone
pays Microsoft a licensing fee for Windows. Whether Superman or Batman
wins, universal standards are coming, which means IMs will become as common
as e-mails, and you won't have to be on AOL to have cybersex.
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