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