Opinion: Instant message

Most any conversation about instant messaging inevitably turns to the lack of product interoperability that continues to exert a drag on enterprise adoption and bedevil those who see no choice but to dive in anyway. Such was the case at last week's Instant Messaging Planet conference in Boston, where vendor speakers tripped over one another - and their tongues - in an attempt to assure attendees that IM's time is now even though interoperability still can't find the party.

The message wasn't always well received, despite the fact that these vendors were preaching to a choir of IM enthusiasts.

"We're all working very, very hard to solve this problem," Jon Sakoda, vice president of products at IMlogic, said at the end of one conference session.

Rather than applaud, the audience erupted in laughter. Not the reaction one would expect, although Sakoda might have earlier laid the groundwork for his being dissed when he rattled off the familiar litany of problems plaguing corporate IM adoption and labeled them all "myths."

Another panelist, Kieran McCorry, a principal consultant at Hewlett-Packard, helped crystallize the scope of the IM challenge when he told of an internal survey that showed tens of thousands of HP employees using each of four different IM packages: Microsoft's MSN, America Online, Yahoo and Jabber. Any attempt to standardize on a single enterprise IM product for the company's 160,000 employees would be met with fierce opposition from all these factions, whose members argue convincingly that the consumer-oriented clients - however flawed and limited - have become indispensable business tools.

"I'm sure if we turned them off it would create a lot of headaches for a lot of people," McCorry said.

A number of conference attendees painted similar scenarios in their questions posed to panelists, whose answers were variations on the theme that there's plenty of value to be gleaned from IM today and plenty of third-party vendors willing to take your money to show you how. Those who might be tempted to wait for all the interoperability and standards issues to sort themselves out couldn't have taken much comfort from the general tone of resignation about that wait being of indeterminate length.

Perhaps indicative of how much work remains was the enthusiastic response from attendees to Reuters Messaging, a fee-based service that will let Reuters customers securely interact via yet another proprietary IM client with users of AOL and MSN, a trick that has heretofore been rendered impossible by Microsoft's unwillingness to play nicely. But the Reuters service, which isn't expected to launch until this summer, will be available only to the financial services industry and initially won't include access to users of Yahoo or enterprise IM systems such as Lotus Sametime.

In other words, it's not going to be the interoperability answer for most who went to this conference hoping to find one.

So when might the industry - particularly the keepers of the major public IM networks - put aside their differences and help make IM as easy as e-mail?

"It's a matter of will. It's not complicated," said Microsoft's Paul Haverstock during his keynote speech. An architect for his company's Real Time Messaging and Platform Group, Haverstock added that under the current state of stalemate, "the only ones who are suffering are the businesses" that use IM.

It's difficult to imagine how that answer was helpful to anyone.

Another panelist at least scored points for candor:

"If I was to leave you with one bit of advice it would be: Plan on a heterogeneous IM environment," said Ennio Carboni, IMlogic's director of product marketing.

This time no one laughed. . . . I can't be certain there weren't any tears.

Confession: This columnist doesn't do instant messaging.

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