The patent, No. 6,449,344, had originally been granted based on work done by a team of developers at Mirabilis, which marketed the first public IM sensation, ICQ. (America Online acquired Mirabilis and its intellectual property in 1998, a year after the Israeli startup filed for U.S. patent protection.)
As a result, the patent governs a system of point-to-point communications involving users at a network of terminals. Users log on to the system with a unique identifier code that remains the same regardless of their IP address, and can chat with other users logged on at the same time.
It also protects the practice of notifying users when members of their contact lists log on, and of enabling users to limit who may see whether they're online.
That's a host of areas that are common among all of the major public IM platforms, including those marketed by Microsoft and Yahoo! -- AOL's rivals in the consumer instant messaging space, and soon, in the enterprise IM sector as well. All three companies have promised to deliver corporate-class IM products within coming months.
Spokespeople from the three major IM networks were not available to comment. Sources close to AOL, however, said that the media conglomerate is likely to seek some form of licensing revenue from its rivals instead of filing lawsuits outright -- but, the sources added, AOL is still considering its strategy with regard to the patents.
In any event, the ramifications appear wide-reaching in that it covers not just desktop IM, but also mobile networks -- an area in which the Big Three IM players are just beginning to dabble through alliances with U.S. wireless carriers.
There's also a likelihood that it will affect other emerging areas, as well. For one thing, the document protects uses of IM that involving machine-to-user communications, since it defines the term "user" to encompass any entity. That extends AOL's patent beyond person-to-person chatting to marketing applications and the burgeoning area of interfacing with applications via IM (an area where Vayusphere and Sprint both have staked a claim.)
Presence is another area expected by many in the industry to see robust activity, as software designers develop ways to integrate Buddy Lists and availability-sensing into a wide variety of applications, such as groupware, sales support and help desk solutions.