AOL-Microsoft Settlement: The Future

AOL and Microsoft have announced an end to their feud. It seems to me that there is a lot in there that needs to be dissected and pondered about. It will impact the development of the Internet for years to come.


: One of the conditions for the AOL/Time Warner merger was that AOL open its instant messaging platform to other parties. By agreeing to interoperability between the AOL IM client and MSN messenger one, AOL will now be able to point to its “openness” while maintaining a relatively tight control over the progress of that tool. I am sure the two companies are interested in working together and somehow doubt that they will be very interested in opening the world to other competitors.

At the current time, IM has taken the consumer world by storm and is starting to make headway in the enterprise. Because of its presence concept (you can see whether the people on your buddy list are online right now or not), it will eventually become a critical tool in the enterprise, moving some data traffic from the phone and email to this new platform. Already today, enterprises that have implemented IM solutions are seeing large amounts of traffic on those networks as employees send the shorter requests via this tool. Enhancements in the collaboration aspect of those tools make them perfect to be used for setting up online discussions and document sharing. I suspect that, because AOL is forbidden from adding new features to its IM platform until it has shown to be more open, we will see the company point to Microsoft and get a free pass in terms of adding new features. This will be good for AOL because it will allow to enhance its enterprise offerings. It will also be good for Microsoft, as it will probably be able to increase its footprint into that space.

Long term, I would expect most of the development of this eventually ending on Microsoft’s lap, with AOL doing an asset transfer of its software division to Microsoft.

Digital Media

: Part of the deal includes a non-exclusive agreement for AOL to use the Microsoft Windows Media 9 software suite. Once again, this is good for both companies and bad for every single one of their competitors.

AOL will benefit from the lower cost of software acquisition moving forward. As it looks to move more into fee-based digital media services (with words that it could offer TV shows, music, movies, etc… from its vast assets collection) the company will make more substantial investments into those kinds of technologies. Since this is a partnership, I suspect the products will be heavily discounted.

Microsoft wins in that, if AOL, with its fairly large customer base, start offering more services running on Windows Media 9, it will make it easier for Microsoft to go after other media player and present its installed player footprint as a competitive advantage. The story will go as follows: use Windows Media 9 server and you will not have to worry about your customers having to download extra software. Of course, Windows Media servers will continue to run on the Windows operating system, which should increase sales in that market and protect Microsoft to some extent from the Linux onslaught.

Another important part of this portion of the agreement is that it will allow the two companies to set standards for digital rights management. DRM is basically covering how to ensure that copyrights and purchase rights are assessed on digital media. What this means is that a DRM system basically encodes a piece of digital media (whether it is a movie, music track or piece of software) to include information about what you purchased and how you are allowed to use it. For example, the Apple Music store currently sells music tracks that you are allowed to use on only three computers. Because AOL is one of the largest producer in the world of such media, and Microsoft regards this software area as a very lucrative market in the future, the partnership will give both players a substantial amount of power in shaping the future of digital media.

AOL wins in that it gets someone to do the heavy lifting on the software side to tighten up control of digital media. Microsoft wins in that it gets a better understanding of what large media companies will want and builds a solution it can then resell to other companies. Once again, this is also a good argument for furthering the number of implementations of windows servers as I suspect that Microsoft will strongly recommend media companies use their platform to handle this.


: By now, the browser wars are, at best, a distant memory. While a few holdouts do not use Internet Explorer and considerable development and innovation is still happening by makers of non-IE browsers, the market for alternative browsers is relatively small. At last count, IE was controlling over 85% of the global market. The only bright spot in that market was a browser named Mozilla, an open source project for which Netscape, a subsidiary of AOL, was the largest contributor. Because of the bad blood between America Online and Microsoft, there were a lot of rumors about AOL implementing Mozilla as the core browser in its flagship client (it has already done so on the Macintosh computer). With the announcement that AOL will get a seven year royalties free license for Internet Explorer, it seems pretty apparent that support for Mozilla from the AOL camp will probably wane. The long term outlook for the Netscape unit does not look very bright, even if the AOL chairman said that they were not closing the unit for now.


: This announcement also shows some interesting development in internal politics within the two companies.

In the mid-90s, Microsoft was starting to move more into the general media space. With this agreement, Microsoft signals the completion of a shift back to its software roots. It is probably a realization that there is still a lot of growth in that arena and that it doesn’t make sense from their standpoint to try to get into the media world by acquiring and/or building media assets.

On the AOL/Time-Warner front, this announcement shows a clear power shift in who controls the company. The power is now in Time-Warner hands, with any concept of competing with Microsoft on the software end now a distant memory. Time-Warner understands media and figures that it is better to rely on an outside party to deal with the software side of the business than to try to develop things themselves.

I am sure I’m missing a few things but I expect this story to continue unfolding and having repercussions across the whole Internet space.

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