Business getting the instant message

Whether people are working with colleagues across the hall or in remote offices or are responding to clients from around the world, business leaders have begun tuning into the tangible benefits of IM (instant messaging). Glancing at a list of co-workers to see who is online and available for an immediate discussion has tremendous value in solving time-sensitive problems.

The most familiar IM is desktop-to-desktop instant text messaging. With additional technology, IM could be extended to the wireless realm, working with mobile devices such as digital cellular phones and PDAs, and chatting could occur via voice or video. If IP telephony is mixed in, users could instantly communicate with any colleague at any time, even without Internet access.

Even as IM transitions from a toy to a serious tool, it faces obstacles on a corporate level. Vendors are striving to change the minds of managers who see it as a chat -- and therefore time-wasting -- application. Most IT leaders have been waiting for IM to develop business-related functions such as application sharing, threaded discussions, and whiteboard features. Also holding IM back has been e-mail, the dominant collaborative tool. But looking at supplanting e-mail with IM is missing the point: For IM to succeed as a collaboration tool, it must augment e-mail, not replace it.

Also increasing IM's appeal is the move toward making an IM system act as a personal portal with a single point of contact for all methods of communication, including e-mail. It will let a user initiate e-mails or calls, for example, using one contact list of office phone, mobile phone, and pager numbers and e-mail addresses. Better yet, it will enable users to control how colleagues and clients communicate with them. For instance, a wireless IM solution will eventually allow users to set their profiles so that the system directs all office calls to their mobile phones.

Enterprise IM vendors have begun adding such features -- Jabber.com Inc. already offers integrated communications -- as well as other business-ready functions to their tools. Also crucial is ensuring interoperability among competing IM systems, which the major vendors are working toward.

Despite the advantages IM offers, it will take a couple more years for it to carve out a functional niche in the slow-to-adopt corporate world. Corporate deployment has been cautious, but some large organizations with a distributed workforce have rolled out enterprise IM solutions, spurred on by the grassroots enthusiasm their users brought to public IM tools, such as AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. But widespread business acceptance won't come until the Internet Engineering Task Force defines a standard and vendors resolve remaining security problems, such as control vs. convenience.

Public IM tools are popular with users, but a private system is the only sensible business solution, giving more control and security. Enterprise IM tools, such as Jabber Commercial Server, Lotus Development Corp.'s Sametime, Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server, and WiredRed Software Inc.'s e/pop, offer security features, such as access control management, to keep critical corporate data protected from unwanted viewers.

Also, these client/server packages typically contain powerful collaboration features, such as threaded discussions and application sharing, that are not found in free IM services. These packages vary in features and in cost -- from US$10 per user to $35 per user -- but the time and effort required to install and support them is minimal.

With an enterprise IM solution, an IT manager can impose different access privileges for groups and users, exercising control over employees' use of IM and securing critical corporate data. By using the monitoring and logging tools, an administrator can discourage employees from idle chatter that disturbs work. Centralizing the message and data stream can simplify the task of keeping tabs on who says what to whom.

Each tool differs slightly in its approach. For instance, Lotus Sametime uses authentication and access control to identify users and ensure that online meetings are secure. Online meetings can be password-protected or encrypted to protect the content from unauthorized viewing. Sametime also includes a unique proxy service that allows external users to participate in online meetings without compromising network security. Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server is integrated with Windows 2000 authentication and security and is managed with Windows 2000 via MMC (Microsoft Management Console).

As enterprise IM packages develop and the range of security functions and collaboration applications broadens, IM will become increasingly attractive to the business world. The principal remaining obstacles are the corporate mind-set against IM and a lack of standard to erase interoperability issues between IM systems. But in the end, corporate IM will succeed.

Senior Analyst Ana Orubeondo (ana_orubeondo@infoworld.com) covers desktop computing.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Instant messaging in the enterprise

Executive Summary: Most enterprise IM solutions will easily integrate into an existing infrastructure and can now provide solid security and strong collaboration tools. IT leaders who deploy an enterprise IM solution will make collaboration among employees and customers more effective and will lower their companies' communications costs.

Test Center Perspective: Instant messaging is developing beyond chat into an efficient and effective corporate tool. But for this technology to truly mature, one more piece must fall into place: full interoperability among the various vendors' clients. Until a single protocol becomes standard, this technology will fall short of its full potential.

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