AOL IM tools up for business

AOL and WebEx have released what they claim is the most flexible and secure instant messaging service aimed squarely at business users

The days of companies using insecure consumer technology for instant messaging are numbered, according to AOL and online conferencing company WebEx.

AIM Pro Business Edition (PBE), launched on Thursday, is an IM service aimed at business users who need tighter security and management than traditionally available in the popular consumer products from Yahoo and MSN.

Corporate IM systems do exist but, unlike other products, the makers of AIM PBE claim that their product does not require a dedicated local server but is hosted online making it more flexible to manage and deploy.

"There is a reason enterprise-grade IM (EIM) software hasn't taken off: companies simply don't want to buy and maintain complex IM servers. Instant messaging belongs on the Web," said David Knight, vice president of messaging solutions, WebEx.

Although IM was created as a consumer application, there are now 135 million people using it at work, according to the research company Radicati Group — and around 70 million of these are using the leading service, AIM.

The software's makers claim AIM PBE is an even more enterprise-focused version of AIM Pro — an earlier IM client from AOL and WebEx designed to be better suited to businesses.

AIM Pro, which was launched in June, came equipped with SSL encryption, and integration with Microsoft Outlook. However, it was still a free service for individuals.

With the launch of AIM PBE, AOL and WebEx are claiming to offer an IM service that meets all the security and management needs of large companies, including the archiving requirements necessary to be compliant with corporate legislation.

But the extra functionality comes at a price. Per-user licences for AIM PBE start at $5 per user for small numbers, but the price will drop fairly rapidly with larger numbers, said Knight. 

For the money, managers get administrative controls managed over the Web, and increased security by applying policies for encryption and automatically scanning files that users transfer, reducing the fear that IM will open holes in the company perimeter. The service blocks "SpIM" (spam delivered by IM), an increasing problem in consumer IM services.

Previous business IM systems, such as IBM Sametime and Microsoft Office Communications Server, attempted to provide the control managers wanted but they haven't taken off because they require applications to run in-house, and are complex to run.

"They're expensive, cumbersome and a step back from a connectivity standpoint," said Knight. "They take the I out of IM."

PBE archives meetings — an important feature to comply with current corporate governance rules such as Sarbanes-Oxley. Administrators can centrally manage all accounts, making sure users have identities that match who they are. Those identities are managed centrally, and permissions can be removed when the person leaves the company. For example, "I should be dave.knight, not discodave42," said Knight.

Managers can also configure URL and content filters to keep intellectual property or confidential information inside the company.

Because the service is run remotely and available on-demand, users don't need to run and maintain dedicated servers and maintenance issues; however, they do have to trust WebEx to hold their data remotely. "Counterintuitively, some of the people most concerned about logging and archiving appear to prefer off-site logging and management," said Knight. "Customers can choose how to log and archive information group by group, as some privacy laws vary."

It also makes it easy for people in other companies to join in. With EIM systems, they had to register with servers at their business partner's company, a process that could require permission from two separate IT managers. This service allows other AIM users to join in if company policies permit it, or upgrade to the AIM Pro client for encrypted IM.