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Mark Atwood
"Open", that isn't.
For assorted reasons, I've become mildly interested in AOL's "newly opened technology", such as AIMCC and X-Drive. So I've been browsing their online docs.

When they say their products and interfaces are "open", they mean "open" in their own typical AOL way.

Check this out:
Q: Are there any restrictions on what I can build?
A: We tried to make the Open AIM Program as restriction-free as possible, but in order to help protect our network and users, certain rules apply. We have highlighted some below, but please refer to the Developers License Agreement for details.
  • Developers are not permitted to build Custom Clients that are multi-headed or interoperable with any other IM network.
  • Custom Clients developed for use on a mobile device or via a wireless telecommunications carrier's network and/or wireless services require separate licensing and business agreements with AOL. Any inquiries regarding mobile applications should be sent to AIMCommercial@aol.com.

No "multiheaded" free clients. So they still want to freeze out Pidgin and Adium, and they are still terrified of competition.

And no free clients that run on smartphones, or other "mobile devices" on a "wireless telecommunications network". They dont want their existing clients that they license to the telcos (for a lot of poorly spent money) to have to compete. And what happens when someone is using a laptop or handheld, and slides in an EVDO card, thus turning it into a "mobile device on a wireless telecommunications network"?

As I look farther, signing a developer agreement with them still doesnt net you a copy of the actual wire protocols. They instead give you a license to an overweight interface library for a "supported platform", and permit you to link against that.

That's not "open".

I run Pidgin (formerly known as Gaim). I have it client for my ICQ, AIM, YM, and MSN accounts just because so many friends and family insist on using them.

But if you want to IM me, I really prefer you use XMPP/Jabber, that is, Google Talk or LJ chat.

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Current Location: Home, Capitol Hill, Seattle WA
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7 comments or Leave a comment
dossy From: dossy Date: September 15th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
First, disclosure and caveats: I used to work for AOL but no longer. Nothing I ever say should ever be deemed as me speaking in any official capacity for AOL.

While at AOL, I raised this same issue about the restrictions you cited. Hell, I pitched a fit, mocking the notion that this was "open" in any form.

My understanding of the explanations I was given was that:

1) Interop. with other IM networks without permission could violate the ToS of the /other/ IM network, thus needs to be "officially" restricted in AOL's license terms. Otherwise, it's possible that AOL could be responsible for enabling people to violate those license terms.

2) Mobile carriers have restrictions on what kind of mobile messaging can take place on their networks (i.e., they control competition vs. their own SMS/MMS offerings). Thus, AOL has to again protect against that.

Given the numbers (how many hundreds of thousand Pidgin/Adium users are there, vs. tens of millions of AIM users) I don't think they're close to being scared of competition. This all seems to be a bunch of CYA maneuvers from the Legal side, which they're obligated to do.

And, as much as I agree this is hardly "open" ... it's still more open than Yahoo! or MSN. Think about that for a moment.

fallenpegasus From: fallenpegasus Date: September 15th, 2007 07:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
The explanation that they gave you is bull.

There are all sorts of ways to violate the TOSs of 3rd party systems and networks. I can violate the TOS of a US ISP by sending a "threatening message", but that doesnt mean that that AOL would be liable if I used AIM to send said message. Many TOSes are utter bullshit, and either wouldnt stand, or shouldnt stand.

"Contributatory TOS violation" is a bullshit legal claim. If there is any basis to it at all, its the lawyers and executives of AOL, MSN, and Y doing a "if you make it a violation of your TOS to violate our TOS, we'll return the favor, wink wink nod nod nudge nudge".

Similarly with the mobile carriers. Their desire to utterly control the phone platform is cracking hard, and should. If they give me a phone that can run software, and that software has access to an IP stack... if they sold me a phone with an IP stack, they will have to live with the fact that I'm going to send IP packets with my phone.

Telling the owner of the phone, or the author of the software that the owner put on his phone, or the owners of the servers that the owner of the phone is exchanging IP packets with, "dont do that, it competes with us", is a bullshit claim.

The example I gave is very illustrative. Suppose I get an AIMCC license, and write some small app, that runs on a handheld or a laptop, with a regular 802.3 or 802.11 network connection. But when the user puts an EVDO card in the laptop, it's suddenly a violation of the AIMCC license? How am I the author of the app supposed to be able to tell what media layer my IP packets are flowing over?


If it was "open", they would just publish the complete OSCAR protocol document.

If it was really open, they would set up some XMPP servers, gateway them with the existing OSCAR servers, and then push out new revs of the official AIM clients that spoke XMPP instead of OSCAR.

The rumor is that internally inside Y there is a battle to do exactly that. Something like that is going to have to happen, because Y and G have announced that they are federating the IM networks, and since G is just XMPP...

That MSN is closed. Well, first of all, that's to be expected from Microsoft. Second, I can actaully get a MSN dev license that is really not any less open than the AIMCC one. (They provide a .NET library, graciously permit me to link against it, and promise not to write a GPL client or a multiheaded client. But they don't have the balls to call it "open".
dossy From: dossy Date: September 15th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
"If it was "open", they would just publish the complete OSCAR protocol document.

If AOL were your company, what reasons would you have to do such a thing?

"Open" for open's sake isn't always smart: you increase support costs, you risk impacting quality of service to your existing users if a badly behaved implementation is used, etc.

I think if someone came up with a compelling business reason for AOL to publish the OSCAR spec, there might be a good reason for decision-makers to listen and consider it. Right now, it only looks like AOL has something to lose (increase costs) and very little to gain.
fallenpegasus From: fallenpegasus Date: September 17th, 2007 02:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Why would I do it?

Is AOL in the business of writing IM clients?

Writing and maintaining IM clients is am expense. It doesnt matter how big AOL is or how smart or capable it's programmers are, there are always more people with good ideas for IM clients who dont work for AOL than who do.

Look at Flickr. How assinine would it be for them to try to maintain a closed source upload client, and try to forbid people from reverse engineering the Flickr API?

If a malware client can damage AOL's IM network, then their IM network is broken, and someone will write said client, whether OSCAR is published or not. Security thru obscurited is idiotic, in that people who depend on it are idiots.

Why should it increase support costs? "We support the following clients." is what you say on the telephone, and then you have an engineer spend 1/4 time keeping half an eye on the appropriate freenode channel, and likewise keep the developer community engaged. People will give AOL great ideas for free, and will do things that bring more users to the IM networks, and increase the usefulness of AIM to all the AIM users.

How does AOL make more money trying to maintain their own servers, maintain all their own clients, and maintain their own protocol? I see lots of costs there, with no advantages.
dossy From: dossy Date: September 15th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, there may have allegedly been an effort inside AOL to bridge the AIM service with XMPP over a year ago, too.
fallenpegasus From: fallenpegasus Date: September 17th, 2007 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Let me guess, it died for business reasons (which really means "some old man was afraid").

The OSCAR/XMPP bridge is an existing open source project. Running djabberd is surely easier to do than running the inhouse written OSCAR servers, and the bug fixes happen for free.
captain_button From: captain_button Date: September 20th, 2007 01:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
"When they say their products and interfaces are "open", they mean "open" in their own typical AOL way."

The key is sincerity.

Once you can fake that, you have it made.
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