Instant messaging (IM), despite being frowned upon in many enterprises, is becoming a de facto method of communication in many large organisations. With at least three standards currently competing for attention, one IM standard in the works could not only provide interoperability but also change the face of e-mail, suggest developers. E-mail, already staggering under the weight of spam, could be reborn as an interface available in IM, suggested Rohan Mahy, Cisco's voice architect and co-chair of IM protocol working groups of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The organisation follows and helps direct the evolution of Internet architecture.

Lisa Dusseault, director of server development at Xythos Software and co-chair of the IETF working group for XMPP, one of the two competing IM standards, urges the rival protocol groups to settle their differences and reconcile the protocols now. "If we don't verify this stuff, then we're facing a huge scaling problem five years from now," Dusseault said.

Steps in that direction surfaced at the recent Instant Messaging Planet Conference and Expo in San Jose, California. Rival IM protocol developers surprised an audience of IM industry workers by announcing they are working toward a unified protocol. A panel discussion that dubbed the contest between leading standards a "Protocol Deathmatch" became what the moderator called "protocol deathmatch turned big, happy lovefest."

Surprise reconciliation
Dominant IM protocols for the enterprise are Jabber's Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) and the competing Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE).

SIMPLE is based on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and has the support of IBM and Microsoft. It is often favoured for multimedia applications, but XMPP's flexibility and extensibility hold appeal for developers.

IM Planet Conference attendees expected proponents of Jabber/XMPP and SIP/SIMPLE to argue for dominance by their choice of protocol. The crowd was surprised into silence with SIMPLE champion Jonathan Rosenberg's announcement that "SIP and Jabber communities are actively working towards a unified, single-server protocol." Rosenberg is the chief technology officer of DynamicSoft, a communication software solutions developer that uses SIMPLE in its products.

Fast action expected
Rosenberg anticipates a draft of a new protocol document could be completed soon, then submitted to the IETF. The organisation could consider standards integration as soon as its November meeting in Minneapolis.

During the panel, Rosenberg and XMPP champion Joe Hildebrand, Jabber chief architect, reported on the development efforts of the two protocols and described what users could expect of the finished products if the protocols continue to be developed separately. Neutral party Maxime Seguineau, chair and chief executive officer of Antepo, maker of interoperable ACCEPT Messaging Server, touched on the strengths and weaknesses of each protocol, and urged "seamless, ubiquitous access across leading end-user devices."

Positive reception
Developers and customers are pleased at the progress toward interoperability. However, the improvements that the IETF's Mahy and Dusseault posit may remain elusive to users of consumer IM services, such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and MSN Messenger. Seguineau notes that the strongest powers in the consumer market have invested a great deal in proprietary protocols. "We won't see MSN or Yahoo re-engineer their networks to a standard protocol," Seguineau says.

The Federal Communications Commission made AIM interoperability a condition of approval in the AOL-Time Warner merger in 2001. However, the FCC softened its stance in August when allowing AOL to offer streaming video in AIM, declaring AOL is no longer likely to dominate the IM market to the point of a monopoly. In fact, AOL has also developed interoperability between AIM and Lotus Sametime, an instant messaging add-on for Notes.

"If there were a standard interoperability protocol, technology would be developed much more quickly," said France Telecom SA researcher Santhana Krishnasamy just hours before the announcement.

Until now, the industry has moved hesitantly in the absence of a unified protocol.

"We are fortunate to have many good protocols solving this problem. This, however, has slowed down the convergence of the industry's adoption of a single protocol," Krishnasamy says.

Industry experts from both camps point out that the benefits of a standard IM protocol could extend beyond IM. For instance, Dusseault says it could allow servers to send out status messages as needed.