It was all fun and games until one of the smiley-faced, yellow beach balls being tossed around by the staff of Yahoo Inc. before the opening keynote of Instant Messaging Planet Spring 2003 Expo and Conference hit one of the Boston Park Plaza's glistening chandeliers, sending a nervous hush through the audience.
As it turns out, this moment of apprehension mirrored what most of the IT managers in the audience felt when they walked into work one morning and discovered their networks populated with consumer IM clients. However, just as the chandelier swung safely back into position, no worse for the collision, the conference speakers assured their audience that their businesses would emerge from IM inundation not only unscathed, but improved.
"RU Ready?" Steve Boom, Yahoo's Senior Vice President of Enterprise Solutions, asked attendees during his keynote address.
Boom emphasized that with millions of consumer IM clients already deployed in businesses through employee's grassroots adoption, the time for companies to gain control of their employees' IM use, and benefit from it, is now.
"IM is an overwhelming phenomenon. This is the first time I can think of that an enterprise application is being driven by consumer demand," he added.
And although Boom cited statistics testifying to IM's rapid growth, noting that Yahoo alone now has over 29 million users a month -- a 50 percent growth over December of 2001 -- there are some obstacles that still need to be overcome.
Among them are the perennial issues of security, accountability, and namespace, as well as interoperability among systems. These obstacles are "speed bumps" rather than mountains, Boom said, predicting that these issues will be resolved in the short to medium term.
Boom advised attendees to seize the opportunity, ready their networks and not leave their business partners and customers behind, by integrating them into their IM systems.
He also underscored his contention that presence -- the ability to see when someone is online and available to communicate with -- is the key feature that will drive IM applications.
"With presence, the possibilities are endless," Boom said.
Boom, and other industry experts speaking at the conference, predicted that IM's integration with corporate applications will be the future focus of conversations concerning IM.
Application integration will allow an airline reservation system to notify a client when their flight is cancelled, and give them other flight options, for example. Through presence, the system can tell when the client is on their computer and will receive their message, or whether the IM needs to be forwarded to the client's cell phone, for example.
When the client replies, choosing another flight, and even picking a seat, "that's actually collaboration with an application," Boom said.
"In a world where all companies are trying to move to self-service and cost savings, what a powerful tool [IM application integration] will be," Boom said.
And while some early adopters are indeed taking advantage of instant messaging within their enterprise applications, the prospect seemed a faraway dream for some conference attendees who were still grappling with moving employees from consumer IM products to messaging software that provides the security and accountability they need.
Shelley Porter, a business analyst with the legal department at global investment services firm Frank Russell Co., said that she was attending the conference to see if there are IM products that could provide her company with security, logging and archiving that would meet the strict regulations imposed on the financial services sector.
"The (usage) statistics are impressive, but I don't really see how we could use it with our customers at this point," she said, noting security and accountability concerns. "I need more concrete evidence," she said.
Robert Bellman, a consultant with Brook Trail Research in Natick, Massachusetts, said that he came to the show to see how to advise his clients, who have the same concerns as Porter, on corporate use of IM.
"I think we all need some educating," he said.
But while companies come up to speed, vendors and analysts warn not to tarry too long.
"IM has fundamentally changed the way we communicate," Boom said. For savvy companies, that means steadying themselves from the consumer IM shock and getting on top of the ball.
The IM Planet show runs through Tuesday.