Dulles (VA) - Since its introduction in 1997, AOL's Instant Messenger has become the most widely used tool for maintaining remote presence, and gathering virtual offices, despite its historic security risks. Now, nine years later, AOL is partnering with WebEx in its first concerted effort to distinguish consumer-grade AIM messaging from business-grade, with the pending launch of their joint AIM Pro service.
A first look at WebEx's and AOL's AIM Pro
With Skype (now a unit of eBay) and Yahoo expanding their reach to the consumer market with voice-over-IP (VoIP) and now video as well, and with Microsoft set to make its push for point-of-presence tools by integrating recently acquired Groove Networks tools into future enterprise-grade editions of Office 2007, the market has been curious to see how AOL - still the market leader, but with the oldest network - plans to expand. Grafting business-grade expectations such as multimedia transfer, collaboration, and most of all, security onto the existing AIM infrastructure may have been technically infeasible. So AOL's solution is actually a novel one, particularly for AOL: Rather than acquire WebEx, which AOL parent Time Warner could conceivably have done, the two companies have agreed to work together to jointly produce, market, and even brand one of AOL's key strategic products.
It was WebEx, not AOL, that produced a new version of the AIM client. The AIM Pro front end is based on AOL's recently published SDK for its next-generation Triton IM protocol, David Knight, WebEx's vice president for product management, told TG Daily. AIM Pro's services will be carried synchronously over both AIM and WebEx's MediaTone network. AIM will provide the signaling layer, which enables individuals to contact one another, while WebEx will provide the higher-speed, media-rich transfer layer, which is only activated when users on the signaling layer initiate contact with one another. So users will appear to receive the benefits of initiating VoIP and video contacts, the way many do with Skype today, without AOL's infrastructure having to be retrofitted for higher bandwidths.
Securing these separate layers will be a tricky maneuver. AOL plans to deploy an SSL-like scheme with AES encryption for the signaling layer, Curry told us, while WebEx plans its own security for the transfer layer. To keep the two layers in sync with one another, WebEx's Knight admitted, part of the signaling layer must remain unsecured. "It's just the payload that gets encrypted; the actual signaling doesn't need to be encrypted," remarked Knight. "That way, the two networks can talk to each other, and know who's online, but we're able to encrypt all of the communications."
What remains to be built are the network management tools, which will enable businesses to administer services and provision their users, without the servers themselves having to be located on-site. This is how AOL and WebEx plan to compete with Microsoft, whose SharePoint and Groove networks are designed to be deployed on-site. "Most companies really aren't interested in deploying a global real-time network," Knight told us, "and investing the kind of money and people resources required to keep it up 24/7/365... We're going to deploy this solution at a low monthly subscription [fee], which will be substantially less expensive, we believe, than buying a bunch of servers, hiring people to manage them, and trying to deploy that [service] on a global basis."
Should AIM Pro be considered the prototype for the class of service that will eventually trickle down to AIM's consumer-grade users? In other words, is this an indication that free VoIP is eventually coming to AIM? "It's not something that we're planning," Brian Curry, AOL's vice president of premium and subscription services, admitted to TG Daily. "It's not as though AIM Pro is intended to be an early vanguard product that will then harvest features for the standard product." AOL's research into the way different classes of users approach AIM, said Curry, has indicated thus far that the two classes' habits "are substantially different enough that we see these two products really being more distinctive from one another, as opposed to less."
One way in which AIM users have typically not been distinguished from one another is in the handling of buddy lists. The new AIM Pro will enable existing AIM users to transition into a new, e-mail-style directory system, with more professional user names that are based on e-mail addresses. "We have a very large AIM footprint in the equity trading markets in New York," AOL's Curry told us, "people who are using this as a mission-critical tool are very excited about the fact that they can change from FastFreddy123 or ProdBroker10 to being bill-at-brokeragefirm.com without going dark on thousands of buddy lists around the world, or having to re-input all of their buddy lists."
Come to think of it, the very notion of a "buddy list" doesn't exactly sound business-like. Curry and Knight told us today that they are working on a kind of tiered collaboration system, where business contacts can become the equivalent of "buddies" for a limited term, perhaps for the duration of a business project. While their joint statement today says services will become available in the second half of this year, the extent of WebEx's and AOL's own ongoing collaboration implies they may be busy with redefining the AIM messaging platform for some time to come.