AOL to open up instant messaging to developers for free

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Dulles (VA) - Continuing with its plan to compete with P2P instant messaging leader Skype and resurgent Yahoo by encouraging developer participation, AOL today announced it is extending its Open AIM program to independent developers, through the licensing of a new software developers' kit. The SDK will enable completely independent parties to create IM clients that allow up to a quarter-million logins per day, all for free.

This from the company that, just a few years ago, was ridiculed as a monopolist for disallowing competitors such as Yahoo and MSN Messenger from borrowing from AIM's member pool. At the turn of the decade, AOL had become notorious from blocking alternative clients such as Odigo from making unwarranted connections with AIM. While Odigo was eventually forced to dwindle into obscurity, managing its own exclusive instant messaging pool, AOL surprisingly found itself heading the same direction in the past few years, as Yahoo and MSN agreed to pool their user bases, and eBay infused new life and working capital into Skype. Suddenly, the market leader was finding itself an also-ran.

So AOL's new strategy appears to be to blow the field wide open, by giving small companies a leg up to become real competitors, while AOL acquires new users from the fringes of the market. While the new Open AIM SDK won't exactly pool multiple IM client bases together, it will allow any company or any individual to build a personal AOL instant messaging client, completing the reversal in the company's stand toward others developing on its proprietary infrastructure.

Under the new system, experimental developers will be able to download and use the Open AIM SDK for up to 500 logons per day, although this number is assessed per developer build, and works in progress often have multiple builds. Once a developer has a working IM client, he applies for a so-called Deploy key, which enables the developer to deploy his client in the field. The key is a kind of hash table compiled from the object code of the client program itself, so the IM client can present itself to AIM's database whenever it logs on. It is this image of the deployed client that is allowed up to a quarter-million logons per day, unless the developer makes an exclusive deal with AOL that allows for more.

Developers will be enabled to use AIM's plug-ins for voice and video conferencing. And believe it or not, developers can sell their client software, although they cannot charge service fees for using the AIM network. Developers do have to promise, however, not to make their IM clients interoperable with other networks - which shows that AOL's basic policy hasn't changed much after all, just its approach.

A few weeks ago, AOL announced its first business-oriented version of the IM client to be developed from outside the company, specifically by online meeting service provider WebEx.