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Peace in our Time - Not!

For Microsoft to suggest that AOL is a monopoly may appear absurd or indeed, the worst kind of hypocrisy but the argument as to whether AOL is as bad as Microsoft has been going on for some time.

Professor Lawrence Lessig, in his book, “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”, worried that the Internet might collapse into a handful of ‘walled gardens’, Portals dominated by the likes of Microsoft or AOL and to an extent, this is happening around us. Of course, no single interest can dominate the Internet but the content management and the middleware upon which it relies, is open to a kind of 21st century land grab.

For the end user, middleware is invisible, even irrelevant and content is everything. Witness the battle between the two companies over the future of Instant Messaging, the virtual presence of the future. Today, like me, you may use Hotmail’s Instant Messenger or AOL or ICQ to maintain an on-line relationship with a range of different people, something I have started to rely upon. I move in and out of conversations all day, with the editor of CW360, friends, my brother-in-law, the fabulous Pussycat-1, my pen friend and office colleagues. Very soon, that kind of relationship, courtesy of .Net and other similar technologies, will migrate to your smartphone and your television set. Even your email. Send an Outlook message, with a signature icon that let’s the other person know whether you are on-line or not. Don’t believe me? Visit www.presenceworks.com and try it for yourself.

Now Microsoft is squabbling over AOL about content and whether the AOL/Time Warner media empire has an unfair advantage, which will exclude .NET from sites using AOL's Magic Carpet technology. The danger of course is exactly what Lessig predicted, a kind of splendid isolation for tomorrow’s Internet users. You’re either using our technology and our messenger and our content or you’re with them. You can’t have it both ways. You’re with us (as a valued customer) or you’re against us as one of their customers.

Personally, I think that this is a far greater worry for the future than the rather jaded debate over who is the biggest monopolist or baddest playground bully. Unless AOL and Microsoft can arrive at a compromise or even frigid coexistence, then the future is going to be an awkward one for everyone else. Nobody wants to live in a technological ‘Us or them’ future but sadly, that’ s the way it’s heading with all the promise and optimism of the Middle-east peace process.

If AOL and Microsoft can’t sit down and agree on a future, one which includes transparent competition and a borderless Internet, in every area, content, middleware, messaging, you name it, then Government may be forced to show them the way. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith in anyone being large enough, determined or influential enough to broker a future, which will be in the best interests of the half billion or so Internet users out there.

But then, what else would you expect from a cynic like me?

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