Getting the message from AOL

America Online can be confusing. How to make sense of a company that's simultaneously suing cable companies for not allowing open access to their systems and battling Microsoft to keep one of its own systems closed? Time once again to turn to our old friend Cletus Linenoise, the guy who answers the AOL tech-support phones and transfers users on hold to Outer Mongolia.

Angela Gunn: Cletus, thanks for talking with me.

Cletus Linenoise: You know, Angela, we really don't have to talk at all. We could have these little chats on AOL's Instant Messaging software, the most popular chat system in the world. Did you know that between AOL-IM and ICQ, which we also own, we handle about 750 million messages and 80 million users every day?

AG: Impressive. Now, the fuss with Microsoft started when that company created its own chat software, which can be used to send messages to your users.

CL: Yes! Rather than build their own set of 80 million users, they decided to steal ours. Typical Microsoft! They snuck into our computers, stole our messaging code, and might even be trying to endanger our users' screen names and passwords. And when we block them out, they just keep sneaking back. The brutes!

AG: My understanding is that Microsoft didn't exactly hack into AOL computers to get those messaging protocols. Didn't you guys put them on the Web so the open-source folks could use them, and announce that they were available?

CL: Sure. We just love those open-source kids. Spunky!

AG: And Microsoft is of course notoriously closed.

CL: Exactly. You and I have talked before about how Bill Gates has attacked the very idea of system openness since the '70s, when he accused enthusiast groups like the Homebrew Computing Club of stealing intellectual property. I recollect that you don't think any more of Gates than I do on that score.

AG: Watching Microsoft wave the open-source flag this week has been

surreal—and I can't believe that AOL handed them this huge, undeserved PR win, letting them look like open-source heroes. Even the Linux trade journals had to say nice things about Microsoft this time. But seriously, doesn't open source mean everybody can use it, whether or not they reciprocate the openness? And that everybody who works with those protocols has access to those user names and passwords?

CL: Well, there's everybody and then there's everybody. If I throw a party, I want everybody to be there, right? But I mean my everybody. If you have a party, you want your everybody to come. If my everybody showed up at your party, they'd be nobody to you. See? And some everybodies, well, let's just say I'd keep the liquor cabinet locked and the good silver hidden.

AG: What happens now?

CL: Right now we're forming an advisory group to sort this whole messaging-standards thing out. We've even invited Microsoft to join the committee.

AG: A committee that includes—gee, Cletus, a lot of these guys really loathe Microsoft: Sun, Novell, RealNetworks, Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame. So wait! This whole thing is a plot to get Bill Gates into a room with his worst enemies?

CL: Sister, we've been waiting a long, long time for Microsoft to get took to the woodshed by the Department of Justice, and here at the last minute they tried to wiggle out by pointing to AOL's merger with Netscape and to the Linux movement as evidence that they're not the 800-pound gorilla everyone knows they are. I don't know if you've ever seen the movie "Deliverance," but AOL and the rest of the industry have their own message they'd like to send Gates instantly. What better way than to herd him into a room and give him it to him special delivery?

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