In the last few days MSN has been gradually rolling out upgrades for its MSN Messenger service; though a public betas has been running for some time, the final release includes a number of features not available during the beta phase.
The Personal Message feature builds on the trend of users using their screenname to indicate some information about their status not covered by the standard Online/Away/Busy.
The What I'm Listening To variant of the Personal Message displays the music a user is currently listening to - curiously, Microsoft has recognised the dominance of iTunes and draws information from both iTunes and its own Windows Media Player, though the message is hyperlinked to MSN Music.
A user's buddy-list icon is now enriched with thumbnail images, notification of new content information, their new photos at MSN Photos and any new posts at their MSN Spaces blog...in a lightweight stealthy imitation of richer RSS newsreaders.
Finally, building on the pioneering work of ActiveBuddy's SmarterChild agent, the message window now allows users to initiate shared searches with their buddies, invoking search results in both user's message windows and allowing a click through to richer results from MSN Search.
Though on the surface, such enhancements appear useful and fun, IM innovation seems to have stalled within infantile trinkets and the subtle imprisonment of users within a group of services from a single provider - in this case MSN, but AOL and Yahoo have exhibited similar behavior. What Microsoft has subtlety done is reverse the rulings that led to the inclusion of the Set Program Access & Defaults in Windows XP SP1.
This points to a larger question in the overall development of IM - where prior criticisms have been directed at the lack of interoperability, the current closed nature of development is, in my opinion, holding back useful innovations around instant messaging.
No major IM network - AOL, MSN or Yahoo - offer the ability for third parties to develop interesting and innovative applications that extend the features prescribed by the major networks. Consequently, the progress of IM development is locked into inane features that do not, for example, build on the potential of rich presence management.
What if I want ...
- The What I'm Listening To status to link to iTunes Music Store, or my friends Audioscrobbler trails.
- The Shared Search to return Google results, rather than Microsoft.
- New photo and blog notifications to come from my Flickr and Typepad accounts.
- Features that let me intuitively and auto-magically manage my presence & status according to changing circumstances (being at home, work, on the move, blocking our coworkers etc.)
Currently, there is no mechanism, technical or legal, to enable such remixing of the emerging IM experience...either due to protectionist measures by network owners or a myopic view of innovation in an open-source culture.
Telcos have long practiced closed models of innovation and seen their businesses hemorrhage into the hands of upstarts like Skype...whereas those who embrace open developers programmes - Flickr, Google, eBay, Amazon - have experienced innovations that extend their platform businesses and drive growth.
When IM operators understand that they're most valuable as platform businesses, we can expect to see real innovation as the developer community applies itself to solving real problems and fulfilling a multitude of user needs, rather than infantilised feature sets.
UPDATE: AOL today announced that third parties will be able to attain partners status to develop solutions that run on top of AIM, ICQ, Netscape and iChat...albeit for enterprises - still, its a step in the right direction.