IM Wars and the Spam Strawman

To be honest, I haven’t used any instant messaging system much since college. But every once in a while I fire up Gaim just to see if anyone I know is on AIM or ICQ. I have a Yahoo account, but I’m not sure anyone I know actually uses Yahoo Messenger, and I’ve been avoiding MSN mainly on principle.

Sadly, it seems the IM wars have returned.

This time it’s Yahoo that’s blocked other clients from connecting to their networks. The most high-profile victim has been Trillian, another client which talks to multiple IM networks, but of course Gaim was hit as well. What’s interesting, this time, is that Yahoo claims it’s doing this to cut down on spam.

Now let’s think about this: In order to send and receive instant messages on Yahoo’s network, you need a Yahoo account, correct? So no matter what software a spammer uses to connect, he still needs to log in, which means Yahoo can control them inside the network. This is where current IM systems are fundamentally different from email: instead of many independently-controlled systems talking to each other, each IM service is one system with many accounts, more like a website with required registration. Place limits on what clients can do, and (barring bugs in your server) no matter what client someone uses, he can’t get around your spam/virus/hack controls.

To use the ever-popular phone analogy, let’s say that SBC, Verizon and AT&T each has its own phone system. You use an SBC phone to talk to someone else with SBC, a Verizon phone to talk to someone else with Verizon, etc. But Trillian makes a phone with three cables, that you can plug into all three networks (assuming you have service with all three). Now SBC says you have to use the SBC phone, no exceptions, and they say they’re doing it to save you from telemarketers. But the telemarketers can get free SBC phones too, so what does it accomplish?

The obvious explanation has always been the ads. If Yahoo/AOL/Microsoft doesn’t control the client, it can’t pump in ads, it can’t tie menu items and toolbar buttons to its other services, etc.

To be fair, Yahoo does provide a version of its client for Linux and FreeBSD (another reason I’ve avoided MSN – can you imagine Microsoft admitting there’s a market for it?), though the Linux client is only available for Debian and a few versions of Red Hat. (Even if they don’t want to release an open-source version, it would be nice if they provided a generic installer or just an unzip-and-run-it package). Of course, there’s nothing on the page to indicate whether they’ve updated it yet to deal with the protocol changes – we Linux users have to hope that either Yahoo will keep the client up to date or that third-party clients like Gaim will be able to catch up quickly.

Update June 25: Well, that was fast. Yahoo changed their protocol Wednesday evening. By Thursday evening, not only had both Trillian and Gaim released new versions, but the new Gaim had worked its way into the Fedora Core official updates!

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