Will IM Pay?

Backers say instant messaging will revolutionize the way businesses work. They may be right.

Some corporate departments, however, have been less than speedy in embracing IM. Finance appears to top that list. Dyan Cotton, director of finance at Foxboro, Mass.-based paper distributor International Forest Products Corp., says IM is not commonly used in her department (or by her employer, for that matter). And Cotton says she’s definitely not ready to dump E-mail in favor of IM. “I’m used to saving every E-mail I’ve ever gotten,” she explains. “I would have to figure out how to save instant messages as files and organize them by subject or person.” The finance chief does believe her colleagues would use IM more often—if they thought the appropriate security measures were in place.

IM vendors hear that a lot. Dennis Karlinsky, lead product manager for real-time collaboration at Microsoft, says the company is addressing corporate concerns about security. Microsoft’s corporate IM platform, Live Communications Server, allows for authentication and encryption during IM text-based sessions. It also gives users the option to turn encryption on and off for audio and video sessions and for application sharing between two people.

“When you look at the offerings in the enterprise IM space, encryption is at the top of everyone’s list,” notes Karlinsky. “If you don’t have that, you really can’t play in that space.”

Plain Rude

Enterprise IM vendors say they’re already seeing a change in attitudes about their products. “When E-mail first came out, there were issues about what is the proper protocol” for its usage, recalls Edmund Fish, senior vice president and general manager of desktop messaging at America Online Inc., headquartered in Dulles, Va. “Now people are asking whether they need permission to send an IM. The cultural issues have changed.”

Probably so. But industry critics say IM won’t truly take off at the workplace until subscribers of different services can talk to one another. Currently, the IM products of the major competing vendors do not work across different platforms.

Executives at both AOL and Microsoft say they are working on the problem. “We believe the only way at present that instant messaging can take hold in the enterprise community is if there is complete interoperability,” acknowledges Karlinsky, who notes that of the two, only Microsoft now supports both the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and SIMPLE (SIP Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extension).

At Quick International, vice president of marketing Marie Vigliarolo says employees have been waiting for the IM product they use, FirstClass, to become interoperable. Interoperability, she says, would greatly enhance communications with employees and suppliers around the world. And in fact, the most-recent release of the FirstClass E-mail groupware product (which is marketed by Open Text Corp.) does work across supported OS platforms. It also allows users to save a chat session and file it away.

Still, Vigliarolo says she doesn’t use IM very often. When she does, it’s to communicate internally. “I think you have to be mindful of manners,” she explains. “I don’t think it would be right to instant message a customer, because you’re interrupting them and it can get annoying and distracting.”

Civility aside, the productivity gains from instant messaging will win many converts, predicts Gartner’s Latham. He believes that IM will have complete, transparent interoperability by 2006 or 2007. Such a breakthrough, when coupled with ramped-up security and more-robust archiving capabilities, will make IM “a major communications medium indefinitely within businesses,” says Latham.

And as other observers point out, new technology always takes some getting used to. The first automobiles, for instance, were met with ridicule and derision (“Get a horse!”).

Forrester Research’s Root believes that the next generation of enterprise IM platforms will blend in seamlessly with existing messaging platforms. That way, a worker won’t have to choose a channel to communicate with another user. Observes Root: “Instant messaging is just one of a whole Swiss Army knife set of tools that will be used to conduct business.”

Esther Shein, based in Framingham, Mass., writes often about business technology.

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