IBM to launch wireless IM

The 80 million users of IBM's Lotus Notes email software will be able to purchase a service allowing them to receive instant messages.
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor

IBM plans to offer for the first time instant messaging for wireless devices, the company will announce Monday.

The 80 million users of IBM's Lotus Notes email software will by mid-July be able to purchase a service allowing them to receive IM (instant messages) on mobile phones, handheld computers and other wireless devices, according to the company.

With the release of its "Sametime Everyplace" service, aimed at corporate customers, IBM will join a nascent wireless IM industry trying to recreate on wireless devices the same boom that IM has enjoyed among people on personal computers.

IBM's announcement comes as IM technology is rising to a new level of sophistication and acceptance. For example, Microsoft plans to embed advanced messaging technology in its newest Windows XP operating system software. The wireless IM industry is expected to attract more than 100 million people in three years, according to market researcher Gartner.

"We're already starting to see more and more use of IM in the workplace," Jupiter analyst Joe Laszlo said. "Wireless IM is a natural extension of this. Companies are going to be more comfortable with it if they know there is a higher level of security."

But wireless IM has proven to be a harder sell, especially to the corporate crowd and road warriors to whom the wireless devices are being marketed. Corporations are shying away from using wireless IM because they believe these programs don't offer a high level of encryption that will safeguard the secrets traded over the airwaves.

In March, for example, hundreds of pages of instant messaging logs were posted on the Web and copied onto various sites, creating the kind of information security breach that has become one of the worst corporate nightmares of the digital age. The logs were apparently snatched from a PC used by Sam Jain, chief executive of eFront.

In response, IBM's "Sametime Everyplace" product, along with other wireless IM programs from Broadbeam and Unimobile in Santa Clara, offer highly secure wireless IM systems, according to the companies.

Those within the industry say IBM's new IM offering will be a big boost to the messaging sector.

"[IBM's new product] legitimises the marketplace. It puts a stamp of authenticity to it," said George Faigen, chief sales and marketing officer at Broadbeam. The company is expected to soon announce its first two clients, companies with a total of 45,000 users, Faigen said.

But the corporate world will have to get over several differences between the IM they've been using on desktop computers and the wireless version.

The biggest difference is that unlike their personal computer brethren, this highly secure IM on wireless isn't free. Jim Pouliopoulos, IBM senior marketing manager for mobile and wireless at the Lotus division of IBM, said businesses will buy a server, then pay for every person using the wireless IM.

Another difficult area is entering text onto a handheld device, especially a phone, which is not as easy as using a full-sized keyboard.

The differences are worth paying for, he says. Aside from the higher level of security, people with the Sametime Everyplace service can send each other audio and video and can also work on the same application at the same time.

The wireless IM industry is also battling confusion over an extremely popular form of cellular phone communication called SMS, or short text messaging.

Wireless instant messaging is often confused with SMS, which allows people with cell phones to send text messages from one phone to the next. It's a huge success in Europe, with an estimated 1 billion SMS messages sent last year.

Instant messaging for wireless devices incorporates all of the SMS features but also lets a person know when someone is online. SMS services generally don't have that feature.

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