Microsoft preps IM for businesses

Microsoft Corp. Wednesday will announce a new package of products and services that modify its consumer instant messaging software to meet the needs of business customers, hoping to tap into the growing market for corporate messaging.

Teaming with two service-provider partners, the Redmond, Washington, software company will show off MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises, a secure set of software and services that can be used by a company that interacts with customers over instant messenger, said Larry Grothaus, lead product manager with Microsoft's MSN group.

The offering is expected to debut in the first quarter of 2003 and be sold through Microsoft's channel partners. It will include the set of software and services necessary to manage and audit instant messaging transactions so businesses can record, log and search every conversation that takes place between employees and customers.

The offering will cost US$24 per employee, with discounts for bulk licenses. Customers will also need a SQL Server 2000 database, which is required for storing logged messages, the company said.

FaceTime Communications Inc. and IMlogic Inc. will provide the server technologies that allow companies to set up MSN Messenger accounts through Microsoft's Passport authentication service. The software from those two vendors will also be responsible for logging, storing and auditing instant message transactions.

The service, like others from Yahoo Inc., America Online Inc. (AOL) and a number of smaller software vendors, is aimed at providing a more secure and reliable way to use instant messaging in the workplace, according to Microsoft. Yahoo unveiled its corporate service last month, which is expected to ship around the same time Microsoft makes its products available. Yahoo's service is priced at $30 per employee.

AOL earlier this month made available a stripped-down version of its anticipated corporate messaging service, but it has not settled on a standard pricing plan. It has said it will update the service with new security features next year.

Microsoft is initially targeting financial services businesses, which are beginning to use instant messaging to communicate with clients for such tasks as buying and selling stock, said Peter Ollodart, director for MSN strategic partners.

The finance industry has an apparent need for message-logging capabilities as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulates communications between clients and brokers, Ollodart said.

MSN Messenger Connect also provides a way for companies to manage the identities of employees who use these MSN Messenger accounts to communicate with customers. The service will enable a company to link its internal employee directory, such as Microsoft's Active Directory software, to the Passport service so that instant messaging accounts can be created, tracked and cancelled using internal management tools.

MSN Messenger Connect will offer businesses an early peek at the type of real-time communications that Microsoft is promising it will deliver later in 2003 through its technology initiative known as Greenwich. The company has promised to deliver a range of messaging tools for corporate customers, including voice, video and text chat. Additionally, it will feature "presence" technology, which makes networks aware when a user is on line and routes messages to the computing device he or she is using at any given time.

The Greenwich technology will be delivered in stages during the second and third quarters of 2002 as an add-on for Windows .Net Server 2003. It will piggyback on a second release of MSN Messenger Connect that is updated to reflect standard communication technologies supported by Greenwich, Microsoft said.

"We're really trying to demonstrate that we have an initial offering, but also a road map for real-time collaboration," Ollodart said. "We think that the next big wave of applications are these new instant messaging-based applications."

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