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April 30, 2003

Instant Messages Are a Hit

By Peter Chapman

Building and maintaining a database and directory of thousands of users with their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses is no simple task. "The sellside firms provide us with lists of tens of thousands of names and clients," said Lichtman. "You have to reconcile all of them so that, for instance, John Smith and J. Smith and John F. Smith are the same person."

Lichtman points out there are plenty of IM service providers who can facilitate internal IM communication - and most IM traffic is within firms - but very few who are able and trustworthy to manage huge customer lists.

Private IM communities such as Communicator Hub IM are a step in the right direction on Wall Street, sources say, but the ultimate goal is interoperability. AOL subscribers want to chat with Bloomberg subscribers.

Currently, messages typed into one system cannot be transmitted to another. A Hub IM message won't pop-up on an AOL subscriber's screen. This multiplicity of systems compounds the problems of the brokerages and their customers.

Wall Street wants the IM industry to settle on one messaging protocol. A group of execs from the bulge bracket has even formed an industry group to press for interoperability. Called FIMA for Financial Services Instant Messaging Association, the body consists of representatives from CS First Boston, Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and UBS Warburg.

Exclusive Control

A major stumbling block to interoperability is the intransigence of AOL, sources say. Its instant messaging service has 180 million subscribers, a huge number of which it wants exclusive control.

In 2001, though, the Federal Communications Commission, in agreeing to the merger of AOL and Time Warner, stipulated AOL give its IM rivals access to its servers under certain conditions. AOL has so far refused and, last month, in fact, petitioned the FCC to drop the conditions.

"I would use the cell phone analogy," said Pikowski of Citigroup. "Say I have Verizon. You may have Nextel. Yet, I can call you. We need to bring this synergistic behavior to the IM world."