Enterprises Embrace Instant Messaging

There was a time when instant messaging (IM) was used mainly by teens plotting shopping mall rendezvous and by late-night AOL chatters seeking anonymity, but IM isn't just for kids anymore. The technology has broadened its reach in the past year and has popped up in the workplace.

Businesses Embrace Instant Messaging

There was a time when instant messaging (IM) was used mainly by teens plotting shopping mall rendezvous and by late-night AOL chatters seeking anonymity, but IM isn't just for kids anymore. The technology has broadened its reach in the past year and has popped up in the workplace. From the Navy to law firms, workers are using IM to collaborate on projects and to speed up communications with colleagues and customers.

 IM Tools
 • Yahoo Messenger
 • Microsoft Chat
 • AOL Instant Messenger
(AIM)
 • AIM Express
 • Lotus Sametime
 • Prairie Group's Quick Conference
 • Jabber
 • Everybuddy
 • ICQ
IM is a simple technology with complex implications. After installing desktop IM software and registering on a directory server, users can log in, see who else is currently connected, and then send them instant text messages. Corporations can build applications on top of IM systems that leverage the messaging infrastructure.

The IM products fall into two broad categories. Public products let anyone download a client and establish an account with a central, Internet-based service. These products include Yahoo Messenger, Microsoft Chat (no longer available for download), and AOL's two technologies, AOL Instant Messenger and AIM Express. The second category includes private products that you set up on your own IM server for users on your internal corporate network. The private products are the ones we'll discuss here.

David Strom was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and has written technical articles for numerous print and Web publications. He publishes his own series of essays called "Web Informant."

IM: Part of the Popular Corporate Crowd
Ironically, the rise of IM has come just after email became almost universal for business communications. But IM doesn't compete with email, it complements it. "Email is not always instantaneous, and it also requires more maintenance, support, computer resources, training, and attention than IM to be used effectively and efficiently," says Robert Moss, who is reservations director for the Texas State Parks and Wildlife Department.

IM is particularly handy for collaborative environments. An IM user can send private messages to a workgroup, for example, while on a call to an outside client. The workgroup then uses IM to quickly hammer out a resolution to the client's problem without the client being privy to the process. Sure, this can all happen with email, but IM is far easier to use, more convenient, and a lot faster.

"It is very convenient when several of our staff are working offsite or from their homes," says Megan McKelvy, who works for Web development firm WebFirst in Rockville, Maryland. The firm has settled on AOL's Instant Messenger for all of its employees and recommends that new employees obtain an account on their first day on the job.

 IM Tools
 • Yahoo Messenger
 • Microsoft Chat
 • AOL Instant Messenger
(AIM)
 • AIM Express
 • Lotus Sametime
 • Prairie Group's Quick Conference
 • Jabber
 • Everybuddy
 • ICQ
Not only tech companies are plunging ahead with IM. Despite its no-nonsense image, the Navy is an IM hotbed. "What started as a simple test on a battle cruiser between two naval officers is now being deployed across the entire fleet," says Lieutenant Commander Mike Houston, who is program manager for Collaboration at Sea as part of the Navy's San Diego-based Network Centric Innovation Center. "We now have 5,000 users, and by this time next year, we expect to have close to 50,000."

Lt. Houston cited several benefits of their IM technology, Lotus's Sametime. "With Sametime, discussions can be more frank than what we did before," he says. "We can get a lot more relevant information than being on a radio circuit. Instead of short, concise exchanges, we now have the ability to ask something in depth. By using the chat feature, we can get a much better situational awareness...at the detailed nuts-and-bolts level where people have to execute particular tasks. We can make faster and more accurate decisions."

Managing IM
IM can quickly establish itself in a company. "We have found that word of mouth and email are all that is needed to spread IM around," says John Patrick, vice president of Internet Technology for IBM. "Within hours, we have found thousands of new IM users were established this way." IBM currently has more than 250,000 IM users. "It is the communications channel of choice for the company," says Patrick, "with over 2 million messages being sent daily." He uses IM to communicate when he travels. "When I am in a hotel room and only have a single phone line and am online with my computer, my secretary can easily reach me, since she sees that I am online."

 IM Tools
 • Yahoo Messenger
 • Microsoft Chat
 • AOL Instant Messenger
(AIM)
 • AIM Express
 • Lotus Sametime
 • Prairie Group's Quick Conference
 • Jabber
 • Everybuddy
 • ICQ
However, IT involvement will probably be required for IM to truly take off in most companies. Using a private IM product requires setting up your own IM server and linking it to your corporate directory. Such an activity isn't that complex; indeed, it'll probably involve only an hour or two of work and be far easier than setting up most email servers. The cost may range from $10 to $90 per desktop; however, IM can be free if you opt for one of the public IM services. The biggest challenge is setting up a single directory for your enterprise, if you don't already have one, or connecting any IM solution with your existing directory services. Sametime, for example, works with a Domino/Notes server, and others work with LDAP servers.

IM does have one major drawback: The lack of an audit trail. You don't get a trail unless users print out a copy of each session. "Email is especially effective when a record of the communications is necessary," says Moss. But this drawback isn't affecting the Navy's use of IM. "You would think that an organization that is as structured as ours would resist this, but everyone has embraced IM and we are willing to live with the occasional problem," says Houston. So, organizations that require audit trails should avoid IM and stick with email.

With so many messages flying around, you'd expect security problems to abound. However, you can protect your systems from viruses via encryption. "Sametime's message traffic is encrypted, and we are finding lots of CIOs who want their people to be able to have confidential conversations easily," says Patrick. This encryption is built into the product. There is nothing for the user to operate or adjust, unlike email encryption products, which are more complex and not as transparent.

Another related IM problem, however, has to do with attachments. Given that a virus-infected attachment on an IM message could be quickly sent around a corporation, there is the potential to rapidly infect an entire network. Good practice for any corporation, with or without IM, is to secure its desktops with solid antivirus software.

Diverse IM Choices
Many IM technologies exist, ranging from AOL's two leading and incompatible technologies (AIM and ICQ) to IM clients from Yahoo, Lotus/IBM, and Prairie Group's Quick Conference. There's even an open source effort called Jabber, which allows developers to build IM applications. However, not every IM product is compatible with the others; most products have their own independent system, meaning that after a corporation chooses its IM software, employees and the individuals with whom they're communicating must be on that system. Costs for these products range from free for the AOL, and Yahoo products to a minimal per-user fee for some of the others.

 IM Tools
 • Yahoo Messenger
 • Microsoft Chat
 • AOL Instant Messenger
(AIM)
 • AIM Express
 • Lotus Sametime
 • Prairie Group's Quick Conference
 • Jabber
 • Everybuddy
 • ICQ
Take Lotus's Sametime, for example. Lotus licenses AOL's IM software, so Sametime works with other Sametime users and with AIM users. But an AIM user can't send instant messages to a Yahoo user and vice versa.

IM incompatibilities may soon disappear, however. The FCC's AOL Time Warner merger approval comes with a mandate that AOL Time Warner must guarantee interoperability in its IM services before offering "advanced IM-based high-speed services," such as videoconferencing. And a group led by Microsoft and others called IMUnified is trying to establish standards for a message and directory exchange. In response to the approved AOL Time Warner merger, IMUnified is expected to release a formal statement saying that the FCC conditions for IM do not go far enough in promoting more interoperability among messaging programs.

Other companies are also attempting to bridge the IM compatibility gap. Bantu has a Java client that communicates with Microsoft, Yahoo, and ICQ users, although not AIM. Bantu licenses its server software to other companies, such as Sprint. And Everybuddy, a Linux IM client, can talk with those who use AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo. Still, incompatibility remains the outstanding issue where IM is concerned. But in the end, IM will probably be as universal as email.

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