Opinion: Business IM: Boom or bust?

Of all the grassroots movements in recent memory to take hold in corporate IT, none has caught on so rapidly or tenaciously as instant messaging.

With a purely consumer-oriented genesis, America OnIine's Instant Messenger (AIM) and Yahoo's Messenger service were never designed for the job to which corporate users happily applied them. It is with interest that we note the recent passing of Yahoo's business-class offering as Yahoo's vice president, ironically named Steve Boom, announced that for Yahoo business IM had gone bust.

Given that from my own unofficial and completely unscientific anecdotal evidence, IM is going anything but bust - something seems amiss. Where is the disconnect? To a large extent, it perhaps can be traced to a case of "fixing what ain't broken" combined with the radically different way that IM "went corporate."

Not since corporate users began their battle with mainframe-centric IT departments (then called MIS) in the early 1980s by buying and deploying departmental Novell NetWare LANs, have I seen a tail-wagging-the-dog situation such as this one surrounding IM. (Although, the surreptitious introduction of wireless is a close runner-up.)

Because a service such as AIM required no central IT involvement, it only required the IT department to do nothing - something I'm sure many end users would claim their IT departments are expert at.

One could claim without exaggeration that IM was a classic Trojan horse. All along, corporate IT was vigilantly guarding the perimeter courtesy of firewall technology. Based on the assumption that all questionable traffic would emanate from without, few companies concerned themselves with traffic emanating from within.

Thus, "implementing" IM at corporate simply meant going to work, downloading the IM program and logging on. Instantly you could communicate with existing members, and it took only minutes to get your uninitiated colleagues to follow suit. Given the general lack of visibility most network managers have to individual application flows, they were most likely blissfully unaware that this was taking place. They were being "wagged" without even knowing it.

Not willing to leave well enough alone, the vendor community came to the rescue of the IT manager - or so they thought.

Yahoo and others instantly recognized - after the fact - the potential for turning "backdoor" IM into a "front door" product or service to sell to IT departments. As these things go, they didn't have a bad story. A Yahoo could state, quite correctly, that these services never were designed to be business class. What followed was the usual litany of elements needed for such products: security, management and control.

Vendors appealed to the deeply rooted control instinct of many IT departments but, this time at least, appeared to have failed. They just didn't buy in.

The rapidity with which Yahoo dumped its business IM was breathtaking. The announcement that it was abandoning the service came during the first week of November. This was only a bit more than a fortnight after Yahoo used a messaging conference venue to announce with great fanfare the upcoming Version 2.0 of its business messaging product. Alas, before it saw the light of day, its days were over.

Still, with IM predicted by some to overtake even e-mail as the preferred method for informal electronic communications, business IM surely isn't dead - it just won't be Yahoo that gives it life.

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