Charles Miller wrote an item item today about AOL’s patent for instant messaging (courtesy of ICQ). In it he says he thinks IM is patentable because it was something completely new and innovative. The problem is, if it is patentable, ICQ should not be the one with the patent. Back in 1995, I worked for a company called InSoft that you have almost certainly never heard of. Our key product was called Communique! — a desktop videoconferencing tool that ran on high end Unix workstations with really expensive video cards. As PCs became more powerful, InSoft came out with a Windows version of the product, and wound up coming out with a lightweight product that would run over low bandwidth connections. We released this product under the name CoolTalk, and were acquired by Netscape not long afterward (for a brief period of time, CoolTalk was actually part of the Netscape install).

Anyway, one of the features of our products from the high end product down to CoolTalk was that you could maintain an address book of people who you conferenced with (think buddy list in AIM), and when you wanted to start a conference, our tool showed you who on your buddy list was currently online so that you didn’t bother to invite people to your conference if they weren’t running their conferencing tool. The real kicker here is that our product had a number of tools built in. It had video and audio, but it also had a file transfer tool, a shared whiteboard tool, and something we called the text tool. It had a window with two panes, the bottom one was for typing new messages, and the top pane showed a history of the messages you’d exchanged with the other person (or people) in your conference. In other words, the very same window that’s used in every IM application that I’ve ever seen.

The ironic thing from my standpoint is that we had all of the parts of a truly killer application buried underneath the video and and audio conferencing veneer. We thought the killer features were multimedia, when it turned out that the killer feature was letting people see their friends online and talk to them using text. When I wrote the docs for the text tool, I suggested that users could use it to help diagnose audio and video problems in their conferences. As it’s turned out, seven years later people still seem satisfied with just using the boring old text tool.

My point here is that despite the overwhelming success of ICQ in particular and IM in general, there’s really no excuse for giving AOL that patent. I have anecdotal evidence from one obscure startup that did what ICQ did before the patent was filed. I’m sure plenty of other people have similar stories as well for just about every software patent that’s been issued. I would like to note that I haven’t read the patent itself, maybe it covers an obscure technical point that our product didn’t have. And, to further crank up the irony meter, the work we did at InSoft was purchased by Netscape which is now owned by AOL, so our prior art wouldn’t count anyway.