Why does AOL need another IM platform provider?

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III
UPDATE 14 August 2006 4:30 pm ET

Dulles (VA) - While it's clear that AOL has been undertaking a serious attempt to rebuild its waning image, among both professional and consumer clients, today's announced acquisition of a small builder of business instant messaging deployment tools called Userplane has investors and consumers both asking questions today. After AOL's announced partnership with IM platform provider WebEx, announced last February, does AOL really need another brand name in the quest to regain leadership in the IM space?

It does if you perceive AOL's customer not as an individual or a company, but as a socially active community - which is the watchword in recent days among potential advertisers. "Userplane provides a brandable Web-based IM service to online communities," an AOL spokesperson told TG Daily this afternoon, with "no download of software required...The customer is an online community or social network like MySpace, and the end user is a consumer hanging out on the Web."

Today, Userplane's corporate Web site clearly lists its clientele as including MySpace, Friendster, and Date.com. That fact alone has led some business publications to report this morning that AOL acquired a "social networking developer."

This morning, MarketWatch's Bambi Francisco seemed to hit upon an interesting point: Userplane is a manufacturer of tools that enables businesses to quickly deploy their own chat services, without diverting clients to a large, centralized IM hub such as AOL. In the past, it's these hubs that have been the Achilles' heel of corporations seeking to improve their communications security. Although Userplane's IM network is also centralized, it isn't large.

Though neither side is disclosing terms of the deal today, in Userplane's online message to its customers today, the company's executives appear to be saying that some type of network federation for IM customers will be the outcome of this acquisition, while its software and tools will remain the same. "For years, Userplane has been dreaming of federated identity and network interoperability with AIM," the company writes, "to bridge the Userplane platform with the AOL network and invent a synergy between open networks and 'walled-gardens.'"

But why couldn't a similar synergy have been achieved through a partnership agreement like AOL has with WebEx? As AOL's spokesperson told us today, the synergies can apparently co-exist because the customers in both instances are different. The AIM Pro product co-produced with WebEx, we're told, "offers small and large businesses a robust instant messaging service that also lets them to voice and video conferencing...The customer is a company, a work group, or even an individual professional, and the end user is a worker using IM as a productivity tool."

In March, AOL announced it was releasing the SDK for its instant messaging platform as Open AIM, for free to licensed parties. In Userplane's statement today was this sentence: "We are also going to be working with Open AIM to become a quick installation and robust A/V front-end for the AOL network." Since the SDK is free, Userplane did not have to be acquired in order to make this integration.

But the integration, said AOL's spokesperson, does open up the AIM centralized base to various clusters of other burgeoning communities. "Userplane customers will...continue to use their branded IM services to bring their communities to life and to enhance their relationships with their users," she wrote. "The difference is that they can now choose to connect their community of users to the AIM network through that same client if they like." Thus Userplane clients can remain behind the walled gardens, but the height of those walls will be trimmed down somewhat so you can see over the hedges.

Yet perhaps even the integration itself wasn't the main goal. Today, communities pay Userplane a monthly licensing fee, AOL told us, whose amount varies based on usage. Advertising revenue is split 50/50 between Userplane and the site hosting its services. "While only recently launched," AOL said, "Userplane believes a larger percentage of their future revenues will be derived by this hybrid approach." So today's deal could open AOL up to a new source of revenue that WebEx couldn't really help it with.

Also, if AOL truly is continuing to develop its own competitor to MySpace in the social networking arena, then it might be interesting to learn for how long these three companies continue to be Userplane clients.