Why Instant Messaging is Bad and Wrong

by Charles Miller on July 8, 2002

While watching the Wimbledon final, I wrote a long-ish essay on why the current state of Instant Messaging is Bad and Wrong.

Instant messaging, as it currently stands on the Internet, makes absolutely no sense. It's a joke, and it's the complete antithesis of what the Internet should be.

Most people get by with one email address. I have several, because nerds seem to collect email addresses in the same way that office drawers fill up with bits of stationary that you never could work out the use of, but I generally get by with just the one. I don't need more than that because I know anyone on the net who can do email, whatever their provider, can send something to that address. Even users of AOL, which has its own internal proprietary protocol for email, can send me a message, because AOL co-operates with the Internet by setting up a gateway between their protocol, and the Internet's protocols.

On the other hand, I have four different IM accounts - one ICQ, one Jabber, one MSN Messenger, and one AOL Instant Messenger. I need all these accounts because most of my old-school net.friends use ICQ, the more recent use AIM, and one of my ex-girlfriends uses MSN-IM. Users of Yahoo messenger can't get in touch with me at all. Users of AIM can not send messages to users of ICQ, despite the fact that they're owned and run by the same company! This means I either have to run four IM clients at once, or try the third-party hybrids that often lose connection to one or other of the IM networks as the network tries to keep off the advertisement-free clients.

This runs so counter to the spirit of the net that it's a real worry. Instant Messaging is the first ubiquitous application added to the Internet since HTTP, and it shows how the world changed overnight while our backs were turned.

Partly, this is because of how IM came about. Nobody went around saying "We need instant messaging", what happened was a company produced ICQ, launched it on the net, and almost overnight, everybody was using it. ICQ took its architecture not from the (open, decentralized) Internet on which it was positioned, but from (closed, centralized) America Online, the company whose internal IM system inspired ICQ's function, and who would eventually, in a strange twist of history, buy ICQ itself.

ICQ launched the model for all popular Instant Messaging systems since. The system was based around a central directory server, a proprietary protocol, and a free client and free service. The client and service must be free, because the value of an IM service is directly proportional to the number of people who use it. If you make any barrier to adoption, your service won't be worth the money you're charging for it.

ICQ and Yahoo Messenger seem to exist on advertising revenue, but the economics of what are now the two leading IM providers is based on how it adds value to an existing service. AIM adds value to AOL because fee-paying AOL users can talk to people outside the previously closed system. AIM is also a vector for advertising AOL, which is why AOL is fanatical about trying to prevent unsanctioned IM clients using its system. MSN Messenger adds value to Windows , or at least allows Microsoft to leverage Windows to steal AOL's thunder (so technically it's not free. Whenever you buy any Microsoft product, you're paying for MSN Messenger, Hotmail, Internet Explorer, Media Player, and all those other add-ons, whether you want to use them or not).

It is remarkable to find a service that seems to be mostly paid for by people who don't use it.

Let's go back to contrasting all this with email. Who pays for email? Well, you may not notice, but you do. Your Internet provider runs a mail-server. By convention, all mail-servers on the Internet freely share mail with each other (spam notwithstanding), so the cost of the system is distributed across the Internet service bills of all its users.

I can not emphasize this enough, but this was the reason the Internet got popular in the first place. The value of the Internet was in the way it allowed all the previously closed systems across the world to talk to each other. There was electronic mail before the Internet, but it was all shut away inside networks using proprietary protocols that couldn't communicate with each other.

If you look at the configuration file of sendmail, still the most popular server software for routing Internet e-mail, you'll find an entire programming language hidden within, designed to facilitate the conversion of mail from internal to public protocols, and back again. As the Internet matured, this became less and less common, to the point that most new mailserver software only speaks the Internet protocol, and doesn't think it may need to talk to BITNET or UUCP.

At the time it was being designed, Internet e-mail had its advantages. It was devised in the very early days of the Internet, when there was time for the engineers to get things done right, rather than done quickly. Also, because of the youth of the Internet, e-mail could poke its way into other protocols - mail-servers find each other using a special "MX" record inside the DNS.

There is, of course, an IM protocol that does things the right way - Jabber. Your identity in Jabber looks suspiciously like an email address, and for good reason. It is a decentralized system, where anyone can run a server (like Internet e-mail the protocol is open for anyone to implement, and there is a Free server any technically savvy administrator can download and install). Jabber servers agree to cooperate with each other. It would not be unfeasable for each ISP to run its own Jabber server in the same way as they all run mail-servers.

The problem is, the only people promoting Jabber are the nerds who created it, and the main Windows Jabber client isn't particularly useable - it confused the hell out of me. So people will continue to use the ubiquitous clients that don't talk to each other, and will usually have to run three or four of them.

What needs to happen, is the same kind of bringing together of disparate systems as happened to make e-mail the killer application of the Internet. Probably using Jabber as the glue, the providers of Instant Messaging need to be joined together by a common protocol, and a way of addressing between systems. I have no idea how this is going to happen, but from the point of view of a consumer, the current system of four different clients is intolerable, and must collapse under its own weight eventually. One possible light is the recent news that the IM client to be built into the next version of Apple's OS X will be based around Jabber, but the idea of Apple playing the peace-maker between Microsoft and AOL made me laugh so hard I almost bust a lung.

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