Instant Messaging wars – and the winner is…

We all suffer daily with the problems of Second Life’s IM chat system, and the issue is pretty simple to explain: SL’s IM is obsolete. Even ICQ, when it was launched as the first ever instant messaging system, had more functionality and ease of use.

Linden Lab is well aware of that, and has long since promised a complete overhaul of its IM system. Not unsurprisingly, many residents frowned. We all know how much Linden Lab loves to reinvent the wheel a few times – but notable exceptions have surprised us in the past, so I wonder if they’ll go the “standard and open-source way” this time, or if we’re just getting Wheel v. 2.0.

The IM Wars of the (recent) past

Around 1999, Linux (and other open-source OS) users were left in the rain when it came to instant messaging. People had to live with clones of ICQ and only dream about sophisticated protocols like MSN’s, AOL’s, or Yahoo’s. They had been around for a while, and, of course, only supported Windows (and the Mac to a certain degree – often with very crippled versions). Worse than that, at those days, it looked like every month would bring us a new IM system, forcing people to create new accounts, download new clients… and get their friends sign up to the “new” service, or continue to use multiple IM clients wasting precious CPU time.

Then suddenly someone got an inspiration. Instead of forcing people to use more and more different clients and protocols, why shouldn’t they go the way email and the Web went a few years before? Separate the client from the protocol from the server. Develop a standard protocol (based, of course, on XML, which at the time was starting to become a serious candidate for a standard markup language), have an “universal” server, let people create their favourite clients with all the bells & whistles and “speak” the standard protocol. On the server-side, to connect to “legacy” services (ie. ICQ, Yahoo, MSN, AOL…), develop “gateways” that exchange information between the standard protocol, and the proprietary ones. As a user, you would continue to pick up your own client – but be able to connect to all messaging systems in the world. Just like the Web or the email system – these days, you don’t need a proprietary browser or email program to access a specific site or send an email to a different network.

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