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David Auerbach Explains the Inside Baseball of MSN Messenger vs. AIM 86

Posted by timothy
from the doesn't-seem-that-long-ago dept.
In N+1 magazine, David Auerbach explains what it was like in the "Chat Wars" of the late '90s, when he was the youngest person on the team developing Microsoft's brand-new messaging app, in the face of America Online's AIM, the 900-pound gorilla in the room. Auerbach explains how he used a network analyzer to fake out AOL's servers into letting Microsoft's client connect to AIM as well. "AOL could only block Messenger if they could figure out that the user was using Messenger and not AIM. As long as Messenger sent exactly the same protocol messages to the AOL servers, AOL wouldn’t be able to detect that Messenger was an impostor. So I took the AIM client and checked for differences in what it was sending, then changed our client to mimic it once again. They’d switch it up again; they knew their client, and they knew what it was coded to do and what obscure messages it would respond to in what ways. Every day it’d be something new. At one point they threw in a new protocol wrinkle but cleverly excepted users logging on from Microsoft headquarters, so that while all other Messenger users were getting an error message, we were sitting at Microsoft and not getting it. After an hour or two of scratching our heads, we figured it out." Eventually, though, AOL introduced x86 assembly code into the login protocol, and that not only stymied the MSM team, but led to some interesting warfare of its own. Auerbach's story sheds a lot of light on both good and bad aspects of corporate culture at the start of the 21st century, at Microsoft as well as other companies.
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David Auerbach Explains the Inside Baseball of MSN Messenger vs. AIM

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  • by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardpriceNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @11:44AM (#46815557)

    This all sounds very very similar to the whole BitKeeper fiasco, where Andrew Tridgell watched the traffic between a real BitKeeper client and the server in order to determine the procotol used, with an eye to creating an open source client.

    BitKeeper found out and withdrew the free client licences, which was a problem since the Linux kernel project used BitKeeper at the time - due to Trudgells involvement, BitKeeper refused to supply gratis licenses to anyone working for OSDL, which included Linus Torvalds...

    The shitstorm that ensued resulted in Linus starting the Git project.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @11:56AM (#46815679)

    If implementing a protocol was illegal, Samba would be shut down because it implements the SMB file sharing protocol.

    This is about AOL failing to stop other from implementing their protocol. While you could argue (somehow) that the behavior was malicious, it was legal. Just as those multi-messenger programs with support for AIM, ICQ, and a couple other chat protocols were perfectly legal as well.

  • post-DMCA (Score:4, Informative)

    by Mariner28 (814350) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @12:36PM (#46816013)
    Technically, it was post-DMCA. It was signed into law in 1998 - same year Auerbach graduated. But the lawsuits didn't really begin until Napster hit it big and was sued by Metallica in 2000. AOL wasn't as smart as a bunch of metal-heads, I guess.
  • by gstoddart (321705) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @01:00PM (#46816213) Homepage

    IIRC, in the ol' days Samba did the same thing to Windows file and print sharing and, wasn't there an anecdote about MS also constantly changing their SMB protocol to block out Samba? Seems fair is fair.

    Well, that was MS being their usual selves ... but that was being dickheads and arbitrarily changing the protocol. This was MS being dickheads and spoofing connections to a server.

    I believe you can't stop me from reverse engineering a protocol between two servers that I control. But when you start messing about with servers someone else controls, nowadays that would be a criminal act.

    I remember implementing something in 1993/1994 which read/wrote files on a FAT file system, straight out of a Microsoft published book in terms of how it was structured, completely from scratch in terms of the raw IO. When several years later they started suing people for using the FAT filesystem I remember thinking "but you've completely documented it, and it's pretty easy".

    I don't have a problem with reverse engineering protocols, but manipulating specific servers is getting a little sketchy.

  • by David_W (35680) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:58PM (#46817289)

    Maybe they should re-evaluate their position on the Microsoft Office formats.

    But, but... the Microsoft Office formats are open [wikipedia.org] and documented [ecma-international.org]!

I tell them to turn to the study of mathematics, for it is only there that they might escape the lusts of the flesh. -- Thomas Mann, "The Magic Mountain"

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