Messenger Upgrade to Disconnect Outsiders

Microsoft is planning a security upgrade to its .NET Messenger service that could have far reaching consequences for IM clients not sanctioned by Redmond.

Starting October 15, users of older MSN clients must upgrade or they will be unable to connect to the service, says Microsoft. Users must be running at least Windows Messenger 4.7.2009, MSN Messenger 5 or MSN Messenger for Mac OS X 3.5.

Support for Mac OS 8 has been officially dropped, but Microsoft will issue MSN Messenger 2.5 for Mac OS 9 on August 27, which will support the new security policy.

Third-party clients, which Microsoft labels "unauthorized," will also be adversely affected by the change.

"It is our expectation that those who use our service with unlicensed or unauthorized third-party clients will likely not be able to log on after October 15," Microsoft spokesperson Sean Sundwall told BetaNews. "We would encourage those third parties to contact us to work out agreements by which they can continue to have their customers access our network."

Clients such as Trillian and Odigo have become immensely popular due to their ability to connect to multiple IM networks simultaneously. Trillian users, for example, can communicate with buddies on AOL, ICQ, Yahoo! and MSN all from a single interface.

Microsoft has established a partner program for .NET Messenger for those interested in pursuing a license to access the company's IM network. Although Microsoft has yet to elaborate on what such a license would entail, it has posted a contact form.

"We've never been a big fan of people accessing the network without authorization," said Sundwall.

But Microsoft itself is no stranger to such activity.

In July 1999, Microsoft launched MSN Messenger with the capability to connect to both AOL and MSN networks. AOL responded by promptly disconnecting MSN users from its network citing security concerns. The move sparked harsh criticism by consumers, and a cat and mouse game with Microsoft developers ensued.

Microsoft and industry giants such as Yahoo! followed with an open letter to AOL CEO Steve Case, calling for collaboration on a IM standard.

"We would like to ask you to join us in this effort and put your full support behind the creation of an industry standard as soon as possible," the letter read. "In the meantime, in the spirit of cooperation, and to provide users with an interim solution, we ask that you suspend blocking users of non-AOL clients from AIM and provide a means for these clients to talk to ICQ as well."

Four years have gone by, however, and the IM landscape has changed greatly. Microsoft is no longer the newcomer and AOL's market share continues to dwindle. Every copy of Windows XP includes Windows Messenger, putting Microsoft's IM network on the desktop of millions.

Despite a myriad of promises, little progress has been made on a unified instant messaging standard.

When asked if Microsoft was concerned with the appearance of hypocrisy now that it too was giving third-party vendors the boot, Sundwall acknowledged, "we certainly have thought about it."

When it launched MSN Messenger, Microsoft touted interoperability as key to instant messaging, but the company's position has changed. "Security is now the number-one feature," according to Sundwall.

"We recognized over time that the interconnection between IM providers must be established formally," said Sundwall. "All we're asking is that those third parties work with us more closely."

Microsoft began notifying users of the impending required upgrade this week. "Monday was the beginning of letting people know," Sundwall noted, adding that, "a relatively small number of people require the upgrade."

The company sent out an e-mail notice to Messenger users, but many brushed off the message as a hoax due its bold opening in purely capital letters. "ATTENTION: IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED FOR MSN AND WINDOWS MESSENGER USERS," it read.

Some users received the message multiple times due to an error in Microsoft's e-mail system, according to Sundwall. Many did not receive the e-mail at all.

However, beginning September 18, Messenger users will be notified of the upgrade every time they log on. No older or unauthorized clients will be allowed to connect as of October 15.

Trillian and Odigo are not likely to go without a fight. After being cut off by AOL in February 2002, Trillian developers countered with patches to bypass each block and eventually forced AOL to relent. Odigo faced a similar battle in June of 2000, and currently touts AOL compatibility in its client.

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