Watershed moment for enterprise IM, experts say

In recent months, instant messaging (IM) has marched right through companies' back doors and onto the center stage. Widespread use of consumer IM products in the office has led to a rash of enterprise IM offerings, and now that the technology has been upgraded to business class, many are left wondering what will come next.

According to some of the keynote speakers slated to speak at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring 2003 Conference and Expo beginning in Boston Monday, application integration, mobility and a focus on presence - knowing when someone is available to communicate with - will dominate future discussions on corporate IM.

"We see the ability to connect existing enterprise applications directly and in real time with suppliers and employees," said Francis deSouza, chief executive officer (CEO) of IMlogic Inc., a company that makes enterprise instant messaging infrastructure software. DeSouza is slated to give a keynote address at the show Monday, and he is not alone in his vision.

David Gurle, product unit manager for Microsoft Corp., and Steve Boom, senior vice president of Yahoo Inc.'s Enterprise Solutions, who are also scheduled to keynote at IM Planet, agree.

Gurle also pointed out that the issue of presence is one that is often overlooked when talking about instant messaging.

"Presence is one of the biggest assets that IM brings," he said. "It creates connectivity between people and applications."

Yahoo's Boom said that he sees IM as an application built over presence. "Presence is the core driver and one of the main things that makes messaging attractive," he said.

The subjects of application integration and different uses for presence have not been the focus of previous corporate IM discussions, mostly because key enterprise requirements such as IM security, logging and archiving became paramount when companies looked to replace consumer IM products in their workplace with business class versions.

But in recent months, major vendors such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online Inc. (AOL) have all rolled out enterprise IM products with these basic business needs. The real transformation of IM into a business tool is happening right now, the experts said.

"We are at a watershed moment where IT departments have standardized on the technology and we are now moving into an area where it becomes a tool," said Boom.

And one new way to use the corporate IM tool is to connect to an application in real time, over a mobile device.

This is the what Sprint Corp. is offering with its recently released Universal Application Messaging product.

"We see IM as a good container for connecting people to the same systems, whether they are on the road or in the office," said Ken Kurz, senior practice principal for Sprint Mobile Computing Services.

DeSouza pointed out that mobile messaging has also been a key driver for IM growth in some markets, especially in Europe and Asia.

And while mobility, application integration and uses of presence show the most promise for the future of IM evolution, the experts downplayed concerns that a lack of interoperability between systems would stymie the technology's growth.

"Interoperability is a mole hill rather than a mountain," said Boom. "That will be solved along the way."

DeSouza and Gurle believe that the IM providers will begin to operate with one another by giving each other access to their gateways and that eventually they will move toward total interoperability.

And although Microsoft's Gurle said that he is ready for interoperability, he said that it would surprise him if other providers at the show were willing to make it happen now, adding that the industry's growth will likely involve some "serious pain."

Still, Gurle said he wants IM Planet attendees who listen to his keynote Tuesday to walk away knowing that enterprise IM is a technology set to take off.

"Don't fool yourself, this won't just be a toy, but a major communication tool," he said.

DeSouza agreed. "Enterprise IM is ready for primetime," he said.

The IM Planet show runs February 24 through 25 at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel.

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