July 15, 2004
SEATTLE - Microsoft Corp. plans to release a product that will allow business users to send and receive messages from Yahoo Inc., AOL and Microsoft's instant messaging systems, regardless of which brand the user is running.
The three companies have for years discussed ways to make their popular instant messaging products work together, but so far they haven't developed a consumer solution - although it is possible with other instant messaging products, such as Trillian.
On Wednesday, the companies signaled it might still be a while before consumers enjoy interoperability among the three messengers. But they said they had agreed to work together on the business product, as part of early efforts to make money selling corporate instant messaging services.
The option will be available with Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005, due out at year's end. In the first half of 2005, businesses who buy that product will also be able to purchase extra licenses so their employees can send and receive messages from the three instant messaging entities.
Prices have not yet been set, said Taylor Collyer, a Microsoft general manager.
Right now, most instant messenger users - whether consumers or businesses - use free instant messaging products. But all three companies said they see substantial corporate use of instant messaging.
That has them hoping more companies will begin buying business versions of the free products. The business versions include things like increased security and archiving systems.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, said companies are concerned that consumer instant messaging isn't secure or standardized enough to deal with regulations in industries such as financial services.
But it's still unclear how quickly companies will agree to open their wallets.
Last month, Yahoo scrapped its fee-based instant messenger for businesses. Brad Garlinghouse, Yahoo's vice president of communications products, said the company decided instead to focus on getting corporate business from partnerships such as the one with Microsoft and AOL.
Ed Fish, senior vice president and general manager for desktop messaging at AOL, said his company has 15 million to 20 million AOL Instant Messenger users at work. But he wouldn't reveal how many are using AOL's paid services, saying only that it "is in an early emerging stage." The company has about 75 million active U.S. messenger users.
Businesses who use the current version of Live Communications Server also can get an additional service that offers more security for MSN Messenger, although the company said it's hard to know how many people are using that.
Although it makes sense for AOL to partner with Microsoft on business messaging, Enderle thinks AOL will resist making the consumer products work together, because of AOL's popularity in that area.
AOL's Fish and Yahoo's Garlinghouse said technical and practical hurdles must be solved before the consumer versions can work together.