As IM Finally Begins To Open Up, Yahoo And Microsoft Cling To The Stone Age

Last week Meebo and Facebook teamed to launch the first integration of Facebook Connect + Chat, allowing Meebo users to chat with their Facebook friends from the popular web-based IM service. The feature has had a rocky history: Meebo used an unsanctioned method to integrate Facebook Chat in December, then temporarily disabled it at Facebook’s request. And while many were quick to point the finger at Facebook (which has had a history of bullying some third party services), as it turns out the site was eager to help Meebo, and is likely open to helping other third parties.

The announcement is the latest in a series of policy changes that indicate that instant messaging is finally starting to open up, representing a paradigm shift could potentially lead to a slew of innovations. That is, as soon as the largest remaining holdouts – Yahoo and Microsoft – follow suit.

Historically, IM has existed on closed and proprietary systems, with dedicated clients that can only connect to a single network. For many years users with accounts on multiple networks (say, AOL and MSN), would have to keep multiple programs open, which ate up system resources and cluttered desktops. By 2000 a handful of clients emerged that would allow users to manage multiple IM accounts from a single program. These stayed largely under the radar until 2002, when a client called Trillian hit 1 million downloads (and then jumped to 5 million six months later).

Prompted by the application’s growing popularity and incensed by the fact that users no longer had to use its official client, AOL attempted to block Trillian in early 2002, though the application’s developers would release patches very quickly to un-break the service. Yahoo and MSN attempted to enact similar measures against third party clients with limited success, as their restrictions were quickly cracked.

Eventually the battles between third party IM clients and the networks died down to a simmer – third-party programs would rely on open-sourced plugins to access the chat networks, and would be quickly updated if anything broke. The networks seemed to gradually accept the fact that these clients would persist, but wouldn’t do anything to help get their workarounds to function correctly (and oftentimes advanced features like file transfer didn’t).

Finally, in 2006 some chinks started to appear in IM’s armor. Google launched Gtalk, a chat client built on the open standard Jabber protocol. Meebo, a popular web-based multi protocol client, launched at around the same time, and along with other clients encouraged sites to begin opening their protocols to third parties.

Gradually AOL’s AIM network began to get in on the action, first with Open AIM 1.0 (which really wasn’t open at all, as it was primarily concerned with plugins and status updates) and later in 2008 with Open AIM 2.0. The second iteration of Open AIM offers third party web services like Meebo and native clients like Adium a sanctioned way to access the network.

More recently, the social networks have also begun to also grant access to Meebo and some other third parties, though most of them aren’t quite open (at least not yet). MySpace worked with meebo to launch support in December, and the aforementioned Facebook support was added last week.

It’s clear that progress is being made, but there are still two major holdouts: Microsoft’s Window Live Messenger (AKA MSN) and Yahoo Messenger. The two networks have teamed to let their users talk to each other, but everyone else is out of luck.

Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg says that he has reached out to both companies, but that neither of them are willing to offer a sanctioned way to access their networks. He notes that while Meebo’s integration with MSN and Yahoo are secure, he’d prefer to use the standards established by the networks themselves. A lack of ‘official’ third party access is also likely the reason why the networks have not been integrated into Gmail Chat (AIM has).

Sternberg points out the parallels between IM and SMS messaging, which has grown to become a massive market that now sees over 2 trillion messages sent per year. While SMS might seem ubiquitous now, for years major carriers didn’t support inter-network texting (you could only send messages to contacts using the same carrier). It wasn’t until these networks opened up that SMS became the norm, spurring incredible growth and widespread innovation (you can now use SMS to order pizza, look up stock prices, and get directions).

IM is also ripe for innovation, but developers have been hampered by a near-complete lack of cooperation from the major IM networks. Perhaps developers will take advantage of the growing number of networks that are open, adding new features that make them attractive to users still stuck on the old behemoths. Then Yahoo and Microsoft might be compelled to finally change – or perish.