Shine On


Carlo Zottmann follows up on my reply to his original post by clarifying his concerns:

I was talking about wide-spread adoption of XMPP/Jabber by the average IM user. XMPP is a superior protocol in my eyes, and I was wondering why it didn't take the public IM landscape by storm. That said, as impressive these numbers are, in my eyes corporate or governmental clients and services [don't] really count, mostly because in these cases the employer (be it a company or a country) dictate which client to use. Now if all these people would use XMPP IM clients at home as well, then that would really make a splash. Now I was wondering why not everyone is using an IM client that uses this superior protocol, and the reason is: there is no client that does really impress the public.

OK, here I reveal our grand strategy. Remember what email was like in '92 or '93? You had CompuServe and Prodigy and MCIMail and so on, and you couldn't communicate with people on other services. Then those services got the religion of open standards and they started using SMTP and everyone had a common language and all was well.

Unfortunately, we're still trying to get to that point in the world of real-time communications (IM etc.). So if you're online using your AIM client, you can't chat with your friend on MSN or Yahoo. It's as if you needed a phone for Cingular, a phone for Sprint, a phone for Verizon, etc. Stupid.

Now, how do we solve that problem? While I agree that we need some really polished Jabber clients, I don't think that will solve the problem of communication silos, because the problem is more political than technical (yes, it's also social, because the buddy list is the center of the universe, but we'll get to that).

One way to attack the problem is to try to get one of the major IM services to use XMPP. Sounds easy, right? Well, not really. How are you going to talk Yahoo! or AOL into ripping out their entire infrastructure just to switch to an open standard that happens to do everything they can do today but not all that much more? Ain't gonna happen.

So we need to find a pain point for the consumer IM services, and that happens to be corporate IM. Big companies don't want all their IM traffic going through some third-party data center in Reston, Virginia or Redmond, Washington. They need and want to have control over their communication services. And they have shown that they don't think of AOL or Yahoo as a vendor of corporate IM solutions (Microsoft is a different story, though MSN is a different beast entirely from Microsoft's enterprise IM offerings). So these big companies use XMPP-based server software that they can host in-house (or they just use whatever IBM or Microsoft gives them).

This userbase of enterprise IM users has grown dramatically and continues to grow. There are tens of millions of such users. And contrary to what Carlo asserts those enterprise users do matter, because the consumer IM services would love for their siloed users to communicate with those corporate IM users (the corporations are where all the interesting commercial services exist).

How to make that happen? Enter XMPP. It's an open standard with a strong client-server model for interdomain federation. If you have an XMPP gateway and some smart federation policies in place (perhaps even a common CA for server authentication), all of a sudden your users can communicate with users at the banks and healthcare companies and so on in a secure, authenticated, spam-free environment. Like email, but really fast, with presence -- and the bad guys can't assert that they are or whatever and indiscriminately spam your users.

So a big part of our strategy all along has been to build out the network of companies and service providers who are using XMPP. In 1999, when I joined the Jabber movement, there were perhaps 500 or maybe 5000 users. Now there are 50,000,000 or more (it's a decentralized technology, so we can't count them all). And there are more every day, as more companies and universities and governments roll out XMPP-based servers and as service providers like Google Talk and Live Journal Talk and radiusIM keep joining the network (sometimes adding the potential for millions of new users in one fell swoop). That huge army of Jabber users is starting to put pressure on other providers of enterprise IM software, as witness IBM's announcement that they will federate with native XMPP servers through an XMPP gateway for Lotus Sametime. And it's starting to put pressure on the huge consumer IM services, too, as witness persistent rumors about an AOL XMPP gateway.

True, those are "gateways" or specialized connectors, not native functionality (Lotus Sametime and AOL would still use their own proprietary technologies for IM). But that's how SMTP took over, too -- gateways first, then native support. It's no surprise that none of the consumer IM services or big enterprise IM vendors have fully converted to XMPP yet, because it's a big job. But the likes of AIM and IBM are inching closer as that army of Jabber users exerts some subtle and not-so-subtle market pressure. The key is to keep growing the network and userbase of companies and services providers who are deploying XMPP-based services to their employees and users, but that doesn't seem to be a problem because the Jabber juggernaut seems to have tremendous momentum.

As I mentioned in the Jabber Journal #27 or a recent blog post, we have been working on Jabber technologies for eight years now. Once upon a time it was easy to ignore the Jabber "movement" because it was just a few open-source hackers. But we have persistently kept building out those technologies -- standardizing them as XMPP through the IETF, extending them in the XMPP Standards Foundation, building more and more client and server implementations (open-source and commercial), deploying tens of thousands of XMPP-based services at companies and universities and government agencies, winning over the likes of Google and NTT and Live Journal, and perhaps most important never disappearing from the technical radar screen.

All that work isn't necessarily glamorous. It doesn't make a splash in the way that immediately winning over a major consumer IM service would (yes, Google Talk was such a splash, but it's not one of the established players). Yet it was necessary to do all that unglamorous work in order to lay the groundwork for what we have achieved so far, and it is necessary to keep plugging away at that unglamorous work in order to enable the progress yet to come. I happen to think that our future progress will involve some big splashes. Maybe one splash will be a major consumer IM service opening up to the broader XMPP network. Maybe another splash will be the kick-ass Jabber client of your dreams. I don't have a crystal ball and I don't have all the answers, but I do know we have proved that we are willing to do the unglamorous work that makes more big splashes increasingly likely. And that's why the Jabber juggernaut just keeps on rolling along...

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal