The current wrangle over instant messaging can't be solved in an instant, says America Online (AOL) .

In fact, it will take a year to set up appropriate compatibility, a company executive told the

Federal Communications Commission

on Thursday. And testing the system could apparently take even longer, all of which could simply give AOL time to tighten its grip on the market.

AOL's disclosure, which came at an FCC hearing examining its planned acquisition of

Time Warner

(TWX)

, means no quick happy ending for companies such as

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

,

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and

CMGI

(CMGI)

. These firms want users of their instant-messaging software to be able to freely exchange messages with users of AOL's widely used

AOL Instant Messenger

(AIM). (

TSC

wrote a story earlier Friday about the hearing.)

AOL's rivals predict the nascent instant-messaging market will become as ubiquitous as email, but they say they have no chance of competing unless their users can communicate with AIM users. AOL says it's in favor of this exchange, known as interoperability, but says it's waiting for appropriate standards to be set and has repeatedly blocked attempts by other IM companies to unilaterally hook up their users with AIM users.

Push Here

Instant messaging is one of the hot buttons that rivals of AOL and Time Warner are pushing as the two media giants seek regulatory approval for their merger. AOL's competitors in the IM business allege that the company is stalling on compatibility in an attempt to cement its dominance of IM -- where AOL has a total of 131 million registered users for its separate AIM and ICQ instant-messaging services. AOL insists that it is proceeding expeditiously to make AIM work with other systems, but it's simply being cautious in an effort to preserve its users' security and privacy.

In response to an attempt by FCC chairman William Kennard to pin down AOL's timetable for making AIM work with other systems, AOL Interactive Services Group President Barry Schuler said it would take 12 months for the company to develop the appropriate hardware and software to work with its rivals.

But Schuler took pains to make clear it would require an additional period of testing and quality assurance to "bulletproof" such a system so that it would be protected from intrusions by hackers and spammers. Comparing the possible threat of IM spam to the reality of email spam, Schuler said, "It's like Pandora's box. ... If the door is open, you can't take it back."

Kennard didn't ask Schuler how long the bulletproofing would take. After the hearing, Schuler referred questions on the subject to an AOL spokeswoman, who declined comment.

But Will Anyone Do Anything?

Whether the FCC or

Federal Trade Commission

, which also is looking at the AOL/Time Warner deal, will intervene on the IM dispute is unknown. At the hearing Thursday, it wasn't a good sign for AOL's rivals that Gloria Tristani, the FCC commissioner who started out strongest in their corner, clearly had little understanding of the instant-messaging conflict, or even instant messaging itself. In fact, she ended up asking Schuler where she could find AOL Instant Messenger software, which already has 61 million registered users. (Schuler directed her to www.aol.com.) "It sounds marvelous," Tristani says. "I've got to check it out."

In fact, Schuler scored some points for AOL at the hearing when he suggested that AOL's deliberate speed reflected a higher standard for customer service than that held by CMGI unit

Tribal Voice

, which appeared before the commission Thursday to complain about AOL Instant Messenger's lack of accessibility for other systems.

If someone sends an AOL subscriber an objectionable IM, Schuler said, that subscriber can click on a button and send the notification to AOL, where a "real live human being" can investigate and throw the offender off the system, if necessary. "That's what people pay us for," he said.

Schuler contrasted that with what he said was the procedure that Tribal Voice detailed on its Web site for what its users should do if they were being harassed online by someone using the company's

PowWow

software. That involved figuring out the sender's Internet address, using an Internet database to look up the contact information for the party associated with that address and complaining to the relevant Internet service provider.

On Friday morning, these instructions couldn't be found on Tribal Voice's Web site; Web pages that might have contained the information weren't working. But Tribal Voice CEO Ross Bagully, who was on the same panel as Schuler, didn't dispute Schuler's characterization of the procedure.

AOL, which lays claim to creating the instant-messaging market, clearly thinks it has done more good than harm to IM. As AOL Chairman Steve Case said amid IM criticism Thursday, "I think we should be applauded for what we've done."