The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 2: Instant Messaging

I wrote last week about the catch-22 of open audio formats. Online music isn’t the only domain in which open formats are emerging, nor is it the most significant. The world of instant messaging (IM) is another case where open protocols have emerged to compete with their proprietary predecessors.

Chances are if you’re online to read this article, you use one of the major commercial IM services. MSN, AIM (which now includes iChat users and ICQ), and Yahoo’s IM services are all enormously popular.

In this case, Jabber is the free/open-source alternative. While the end-user experience is basically the same, Jabber has a different significantly architecture from the dominant IM.

I’m not an expert in this area, so I’ll keep my description as basic as possible. The Jabber protocol is similar to the email infrastructure, where anyone can setup a server that clients connect to. The server then relays messages to other clients on that same server, or to other servers to reach other clients. Like with email, then, you can setup your own server – though this isn’t practical for most people. The more likely scenario involves companies or internet services providers (ISPs) setting up Jabber servers much like they do with email. This differs from MSN, Yahoo, and AIM in that each of these services have their own central server systems that are controlled by the company that owns each network.

As with music file formats, most people don’t care about instant messaging protocols. They just want to chat with their friends and co-workers. You have to use the same protocol/service as your friends, or you’ve got no-one to talk to.

There are some key software applications that can help bridge the gap between proprietary protocols and the open Jabber protocol. Several instant messaging client applications, including Gaim, Trillian, and Adium, allow you to connect to all of the major IM networks. You can have contacts from MSN, AIM, and others, all on the same contact list as your Jabber contacts.

These multiple-protocol clients help ease the transition to open protocols. If I were to switch entirely to Jabber today, I would no longer be able to talk to many of my friends. However, using Gaim, I can use Jabber whenever possible, but still maintain contact with those of my friends still using proprietary protocols.

Of the 20 to 30 contacts I have in my instant messaging client, a little more than half of those are using Jabber. The remain contacts are either AIM, ICQ, or IRC (I’ve managed to drop any MSN contacts).

This is likely a higher ratio of Jabber-to-proprietary contacts than many. This is because at the small business where I work we have our own Jabber sever setup that allows us to have secure (and free) instant messaging (both for one-on-one chat and for group chats). The open-source nature of Jabber allows our company to easily control and manage our own instant messaging server. I would encourage other businesses to do the same. It has been a great tool for us.

The Catch-22 of Open Formats mini-series
  1. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 1: Music
  2. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 2: Instant Messaging (you are here)
  3. Part 3: Coming soon

8 thoughts on “The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 2: Instant Messaging

  1. So Steve, what exactly is the catch 22 in the IM protocols? Why can Fedora Core come installed with ICQ/MSN/AIM whereas MP3 isn’t supported for music apps? Are these protocols somehow more open than the MP3 – i.e. does gaim/trillian/miranda/whatever have to pay licensing fees to support these protocols?

  2. Good question Nick – this wasn’t clear because I didn’t do a good job of expressing it.

    It is true that open-source apps haven’t has as much trouble from proprietary IM services as has been the case in the multimedia world. However, the catch-22 of open IM protocols is still similar: people will use the music format that their favourite songs are available in, and people will use the IM protocol that their friends use.

    If it weren’t for the bridging applications that allow me to use both Jabber and other closed protocols, it would be almost impossible to switch to Jabber – but it’s still tough to get anyone to switch without having everyone else switch first (that’s the catch-22).

    Perhaps in this case, though, the catch-22 isn’t any worse than it would be for any new IM protocol (open or otherwise).

  3. Are you aware Steven that many of the relay servers you mentioned also support relaying to MSN, AIM and Yahoo?

    So it’s very possible to just have one Jabber client and you can add all your friends who use MSN/AIM/Yahoo via a special prefix on the end which the server understands and opens a connection to the AIM/MSN or Yahoo central servers to pass your message on (and in reverse to receive messages). The only problem is that it doesn’t support basically anything other than basic text chat on other services, so when your friend tries to send you a photo over msn or AIM it’ll just not work.

  4. Hello,

    Well, now even Skype is an IM platform as well. I am quite please with the features with Skype’s IM, in addition to the already great voice component. I wish I could have plugings for Skype so it’s client would support other IM networks.


  5. Re: Businesses running their own Jabber server.

    It is even easier for businesses to say “everyone here uses [IM protocol of choice]”. If you are worried about security, Rendevous will work w/o any central server, one less thing for Mr. Ops Guy to worry about (at our company of 12, our ops guy is ridiculously busy).

  6. From my experiences, I’m surprised at how naturally my circle of friends have switched to various IM services. As a long time ICQ user, I saw many of my ICQ friends switch over to MSN. Most of my relatives overseas have now switched over to Yahoo.

    While I agree it’s a catch-22, there was still something that was able to get a few friends to jump ship and join an alternative IM service, even if it meant starting over with a blank slate. I still don’t know anyone using Jabber, but already, a few friends have started to join the Skype bandwagon, so it’s not totally insurmountable.

  7. I am impressed that you have no MSN contacts. Although I use Trillian and have signins on AOL, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo and Jabber, the vast majority of my contacts use MSN. I think there’s only one or two people I talk to regularly who don’t use it.

  8. Note about Skype.
    It’s fine. It does wonders with voice communication. Sure.

    But it’s still proprietary.
    What happens if one day Skype owners decide that from now on you have to pay the fee/royalty to use the network? You’re stuck with the fee or have to switch to another network. Ergo – using Skype you’re not free.

Comments are closed.