Instant messenger hits the corporate world

Messaging evolves from its original application as a consumer toy to come of age as a far-reaching business tool

Microsoft's decision to make instant messenger, now called Windows Messenger, an integral part of the Windows operating system highlights one application of the highly-buzzed software: business adoption.

By integrating Windows Messenger with Windows XP, "Microsoft clearly gets it", said Bob Zurek, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "More so than [America Online]." "It" is the numerous possibilities for utilising the power behind instant messaging, especially in the e-business office.

Microsoft is actually catching on to a wave of third-party developers that have already gotten the idea, such as FaceTime Communications, Jabber, Parlano, Sonork and WiredRed Software. Lotus Development has had Sametime on the market since before most knew what IM was.

These systems turn the foundation of instant messaging from a consumer toy into a comprehensive business tool that can be used in numerous applications around the enterprise. "There's no ignoring the fact this is going to be a huge industry," said Allen Drennan, president and chief executive of WiredRed, which has already made a profitable business from the software with customers like Pfizer, the US Army and WorldCom.

"IBM is already here [with Lotus Sametime] and now Microsoft is coming."

Of course, there's one IM company that still hasn't entered the business market: AOL. Glen Vondrick, FaceTime chief executive, said AOL's original premise of giving AOL Instant Messager (AIM) away was to generate advertising sales revenue, but that doesn't work in business licensing situations.

"I think ultimately AOL will feel threatened enough when they know these Microsoft business implementations could hurt them," Vondrick said.

FaceTime is the only IM company to have arrangements that allows its users to utilize the IM software and network from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo!. FaceTime pays AOL a percentage of their licensing fee for the privilege of interoperability, while the use is free on Microsoft and AOL.

Forrester's Zurek finds that pretty strange. "The only way [AOL] can alienate businesses is if they don't allow companies like FaceTime to build a successful business on their IM network," Forrester's Zurek said. "They should be setting it up and encouraging companies to adopt solutions on their network."

Since IM software from the three giants is free, it would seem strange a company like WiredRed wants to go into a business and ask for money. But the services they provide over that channel are enough to gain the contract.

WiredRed's e/pop 3.0 provides central management from a server and leverages the user profiles in Novell Directory Server, Windows NT domains, and Windows Active Directory, to set up the groups of IM users, as well as provide a "presence" mechanism.

Next to chatting, presence is the most productive use of IM, because it tells a person when someone is online or not. Presence capabilities can be expanded to notify where someone is logged on from and if they're taking instant messages or not. E/pop 3.0 also integrates with Citrix and Terminal Server thin clients.

FaceTime integrates with customer relationship management software. Customers Dell and Compaq use this in their call centres to aide agents. Someone shopping on Dell's Web site can send an IM to the call centre, which will then be replied to by the next representative in the queue, much like if that person called on the phone and was connected to the next available agent.

The call centre rep can then use the IM to communicate in real-time with an expert on the problem that customer called about and reply to the customer through the IM window.

While FaceTime is a more open platform, allowing for wider adoption, WiredRed's proprietary network allows it to promise a much more secure interface. That's what appealed to Nick Reich, director of information services at M Hayes & Associates, a 60-employee medical services firm in Maryland.

"Because we're passing sensitive information, it's important to have a secure infrastructure instead of a public one," Reich said. "It's private on the inside plus we're in control."

Reich also liked one of the unintentional benefits of a closed IM system, which is choosing user names. While it's almost impossible to find a buddy name on AIM that makes any sense or has any correlation with the actual name holder, right away Reich is able to give out "billsmith" as a user name to Bill Smith.

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