As an IT consultant, the decision you make for your firm—and the advice you give your clients—about what instant messaging platform to use may be much more important than you think. According to Gartner, “As consumers and business users select brand loyalty to AOL or Microsoft, they may be pledging not only their IM address, but also their future online persona and personal data. Instant messaging will be the core of wireless e-commerce, live collaboration, virtual gaming, and a host of other Internet applications.”

So where do your loyalties lie? Are you a fan of AOL—a company Gartner calls the “master of marketing”—or are you a Microsoft enthusiast? Gartner predicts a final showdown between the two by 2003, resulting in “either a major technology and marketing deal between the two or annihilation of one of the players as far as Web services is concerned.”

TechRepublic members have posted a variety of comments on this issue. In this article, we’ll share their recommendations and predictions.

The history behind the feud

It’s been a long and bitter battle between AOL and Microsoft (MS). The major dispute involves AOL’s decision not to make its instant messaging (IM) systems, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ, interoperable with other IM competitors. During the government approval process of the AOL/Time Warner merger, IM became an issue. MS joined an alliance with other AOL competitors in a lobbying effort to persuade the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to force AOL to become interoperable. The effort failed. (An article on CNET, “FCC critics call IM conditions toothless,” describes the FCC ruling.) AOL has said it will eventually make its IM interoperable, but hasn’t done yet so because of security and privacy reasons.

The best features among the big players
TechRepublic members are apparently not fans of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Most complained that AIM is too slow, and they had harsh words for AIM’s policy against interoperability.

However, about one-third of the TechRepublic members who posted comments gave high praise for AOL’s other IM system—ICQ. Here are a few of the pro-ICQ comments:

  • “Personally, I prefer ICQ, and it is more flexible and feature-filled than either of the other two offerings,” wrote jackan.
  • “…for sending files, you can’t beat ICQ. I have gotten files as large as 14 MB in ICQ,” wrote jumpshot.

Yet the majority of those who posted comments said they used MSN in their organization. Many comments were similar to the following post from member tamking1:

“I agree that MSN is going to win the battle of the IMs. Having used both, I am much more impressed with the capabilities of MSN. Not only can you actually see when someone is typing (no more waiting for that last message), you can also send a page, call, or e-mail someone who is not online. Since it isn’t binding, it also doesn’t mess with networks! I give MSN the thumbs-up.”

The Microsoft edge in the battle
Most TechRepublic members expect MSN to win out over AOL. Marianosrur brought up a particular MS advantage: “The integration that MSN will have with Windows XP and Office XP will make it prevail.”

Part of XP will be Microsoft’s new .Net component, HailStorm, which will use MSN Messenger and the free e-mail service, Hotmail, as the connection that will link Web sites and services to consumers. All of this information would be accessible through any PC, cell phone, or PDA.

Only two TechRepublic members predicted that better marketing techniques could make AOL the winner in the IM battle.

One member, k.p.thottam, predicted that the stronger ISP—either MS or AOL—would win the battle because of this observation: “Non-techies…often…don’t know how to change defaults in their browsers.”

But bsalus argued that AOL now has a disadvantage in its efforts to be a strong ISP.

“AOL grew by making it easy for people to connect, but that was dial-up. Cable and DSL are fairly widespread, and AOL doesn’t have a footing there. Meanwhile, MSN IM is becoming the standard choice for non-AOL users, which is a larger percentage. Now MSN IM has surpassed AOL IM in total users. AOL made a huge mistake in not permitting industry access to their service….”

Rooting for the underdog
In the discussions, some TechRepublic members also touted MS/AOL competitors, along with a few lesser-known players in the IM game. Here are some of those comments:

  • “In my opinion, Odigo is the best IM software out there. It’s interoperable with all the other IM software (AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, etc.), the interface isn’t boring, and it’s just as easy to configure and play with than any of them. I’ll never go back to anything else!” wrote TimIT.
  • “Yahoo messenger is still the best…. Yahoo messenger has a Java version, runs even on a mobile phone, has voice chat, supports Linux….” wrote placeonthemoon.
  • “I use Trillian from Cerulean Studios to connect to everything, including AIM, MSN, ICQ, IRC, and Y!,” wrote amagoon.
  • “…[an] open-standard IM has arrived, and its name is Jabber. With XML as the backbone and open gateways to everyone, it has by default become the standard by which all others are and will be measured,” wrote dshumate.

Take it or leave it?
While some industry analysts envision IM as becoming as critical to communications as the telephone, not everyone endorses this impending revolution for the enterprise.

TechRepublic memberJaredH is among the critics. He wrote, “AOL vs. MSN vs. ICQ? Who really cares? I don’t use any chatting program in my business because they have been more counterproductive than productive.”

Pandora’s box

Some organizations have issued rules concerning the use of the Internet and e-mail in an effort to keep workers productive. Do you predict that organizations will add rules to govern the use of Instant Messaging? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.