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AOL competitors OK standards for instant messaging services

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SPRINGFIELD, Va. — A group of high-tech companies that includes Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo! Inc. said Tuesday it will make its instant messaging services compatible with each other this fall.

Conspicuously missing from the list of participating companies is Dulles-based America Online Inc., which dominates the instant messaging market.

AOL, with 160 million registered instant messaging users worldwide, has repeatedly blocked competing services from tapping into its network of users, citing concerns about privacy and security.

Critics say AOL's actions are anti-competitive, comparing it to a long-distance telephone carrier that would prohibit its customers from calling another carrier's customers.

Alexander Diamandis, vice president of marketing for New York-based Odigo, a competing instant messaging service, said Tuesday's announcement will put pressure on AOL to change its stance by demonstrating that privacy issues can be resolved quickly.

"Hopefully the (Federal Communications Commission) will give AOL a kick in the pants to get on board with inter-operability," Diamandis said.

AOL is seeking approval of its proposed merger with Time Warner Inc. from federal and European regulators and appears before the FCC later this week. AOL rivals have cited the online giant's refusal to open its network to outsiders as a key competitive issue relating to the merger.

Last month AOL announced its intention to make its system compatible with competitors, but it didn't establish a timeframe for doing so. It has likened competitors' attempts at compatibility to hacking.

"We are very committed to arriving at standards for interoperability," AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said Tuesday. "We just want to make sure that we don't arrive at something that puts consumers at risk."

Primrose said AOL will agree to compatibility standards set forward by an industry task force, which could occur within a year.

Diamandis said AOL gains a competitive advantage every day the advantage is unresolved.

"Their monopoly of this market is not just killing competition, it's killing innovation," he said.

Instant messaging software allows users to instantly zap messages to friends and co-workers. In the United States, 30 million people, or roughly 32 percent of the online population, used instant messaging at least once a week, according to a study last year by Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based technology research firm.

Brian Park, a senior producer with Yahoo!, said the specifications for compatibility will be made available to the public by the end of August and any instant messaging provider, including AOL, can join in.

"We view our announcement as an open invitation to AOL," Park said.

Yahoo!, Odigo, Microsoft's MSN and other services have reached various compatibility agreements on a piecemeal basis over the past year. Tuesday's announcement ensures all the major instant messaging services besides AOL will be linked up.

Diamandis acknowledged it will still be a relatively cumbersome process for consumers, requiring them to register with every instant messaging service.

Eventually, the coalition is seeking an industry standard that will ensure compatibility even if a customer is registered with only one provider.

The new coalition, dubbed IMUnified, includes AT&T Corp., ExciteAtHome, icast Corp., Microsoft, Odigo, Phone.com, Prodigy, Tribal Voice and Yahoo!.