FRAMINGHAM (03/10/2000) - Corporate information technology managers always seem to be the last to know. PCs, handhelds - even the Web itself - have all come in through the back door.
The same thing is about to happen with so-called "instant messaging," or IM, with the most popular example being AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM). Most IT types still view AIM and its cousins as consumer toys - more suitable for gossiping teenagers than for serious enterprise-class applications. But make no mistake about it: IM is a potentially tremendous tool for creating value and achieving competitive advantage. IT managers ignore it at their peril.
Say you're in financial services. Think your customers would like to receive immediate notification when the price of any stock they're holding moves by more than 5%? Think they'd like to be able to instantly execute a trade directly from that notification?
IM can do that. Unlike e-mail, IM is a real-time medium. That's important when it comes to things like stocks, airplane seats and auctions that don't wait around while mail servers lazily work through message queues. IM also detects whether individual customers are online. So, unlike e-mail or voice mail, you know they're getting your message. IM lets you move right into interactive "chat" with your customers so you can resolve business issues right away. You can easily keep multiple IM interactions going at the same time (that's how my kids use it). IM is also a directory-based technology, so it enables you to create secure, bounded online communities. Still think it's just a teen toy?
Of course, IM is no panacea. Right now, the IM client market is fragmented across proprietary networks including AOL, ICQ, Yahoo and Microsoft Services Network. Corporate development teams don't have any experience integrating e-commerce applications with these IM networks. And no one is sure how Internet service providers will respond when businesses start taking advantage of free IM services to push their e-value propositions to the next level.
But these issues will be resolved quickly, as the market begins to realize the incredible value of real-time communications over the Internet. In fact, the typed-text communications that IM now offers are probably just the first stage in the evolution of the real-time Net. Voice, graphics and video can't be far behind.
Think about it. IM detects the presence of known users. It provides directory-based authentication. And, if network problems temporarily disrupt their ability to deliver real-time messaging, IM servers can simply switch into "store-and-forward" mode temporarily - imitating e-mail until real-time connections can be restored. That's a much more intelligent model for voice over IP than simply trying to duplicate the behavior of the conventional public switched telephone network on the Net.
So do yourself a favor. Don't adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward IM. Get your hands on it now. Your developers need to know how it works, and your marketing people need to start thinking about how they can use it to offer value-added services that bond your company more closely with your customers. After all, how many times do teen-agers have to be right about technology before we start listening to them?
LENNY LIEBMANN is an independent consultant specializing in the alignment of IT resources with business goals. Contact him at LL@exit109.com.