IT pros on IM: Indispensable? … Or just a nuisance?

This exercise started with the assumption that I'm a dinosaur in my steadfast refusal to use instant messaging. E-mail, the phone, shouting and getting off my butt work fine 99.9% of the time and I'm not taking on another distraction to grab that other sliver. So my e-mail question to the Network World staff was: "Am I the last holdout ... or are there others here who still do not IM?"

Turns out dinosaurs are far from extinct. Most of my colleagues either do not use IM or use it rarely, with a few reporting that they did IM but do no longer -- recovering IMers, if you will. Oh, there are hardcore users, but nowhere near what I had suspected. Journalists are an odd lot, however, so I turned to a more reliable gauge, the members of my e-mail list called the Buzzblog Brigade. What is IM to these tech professionals: Indispensable or just a nuisance?

Last time we posed one of these preposterously loaded questions -- "Hypothetical Death Match: E-mail vs. the Web" -- it produced a lopsided response, as the Web kicked e-mail's sorry butt all over cyberspace. This time around it's e-mail's first cousin that's in for the paddling.

Out of courtesy, though, we'll begin with an IMer, albeit one with a familiar beef.

"IM is somewhat indispensable to me," says Jason Thomas. "It can be annoying at times, but it is always cool to get a quick hit/feedback/comment from a colleague. Additionally, it is a good way to stay in touch with folks you don't see that often. Granted, it will never replace a phone call or personal visit. There are things that can only be conducted by phone or in person, and for that IM is just no substitute."

"My major complaint with all of the various IM services is their interconnectedness -- or incredible lack thereof. I have accounts on all the major IM platforms -- MSN, AIM, Yahoo!, ICQ, and Gtalk. Now, I use Gaim to use all clients from one application. I also have a separate Skype application. Of course, Skype is the outlier, but you would think the other services would be interoperable -- especially given that this technology is now quite mature. I also realize using an open-source app like Gaim probably limits some of my functionality in some cases -- file transfers being one of them. Nonetheless, it is a fair trade-off to get one client as opposed to four."

Peer pressure drove out next respondent to dabble in IM, but it wasn't enough to get him hooked.

"The only reason I used IM is that my fellow sysadmin talked me into it," says John Gog. "With all our other means of getting hold of one another, we dropped it. As a social tool for the home user, I suppose it works well; my son uses it a good bit. But even he jumps to e-mail or the phone more than he uses IM. … IM has become such a breeding ground for sending Trojans and links to places that will give you Trojans, adware, and spyware, that it’s become more risky than e-mail. In the workplace, it’s just another distraction and, I suspect, seldom gets used for business purposes. Of course, since no one around here uses it for business purposes (officially), I can’t say that as an absolute, but I’d be willing to bet I’m not far wrong."

One's view depends on the demands of one's job, naturally.

"I do technical support and remote installation by IM using ICQ with links to AIM, qhz, abc and every other darn IM system that matters. Some of it is very critical, time dependent or just urgent. I find IM indispensable," says Brandon Sussman. "… In more humanistic endeavors, I would not consider using IM as it is a nuisance. I do not chat online. Ever."

"It depends on the organization," agrees Greg Martin. "I was part of a large outsourcing company. We weren't all on-site and my team used IM to stay in constant touch throughout the day. The backchannel conversations during conference calls helped us get to completion on the issues. At my current job, the team is local and within earshot and the need is limited."

There are those who not only hold IM at bay, but in contempt.

"IM is just a phone call that gives your fingers cramps," offers Doug Murray. "When I can coordinate a schedule with someone, I'd rather talk. If I'm in class, church, or a meeting, I'm there for a reason and would rather pay attention to that, so e-mail me. That would still be true even if we didn't block IM at work."

"Ah, instant messaging," adds Bill Dotson. "The new-age water cooler, where your buddies can find out what you did this weekend without ever having to actually talk to you. Personally, I don't need any more interruptions. If the message is that important, call me or stop by my desk. Professionally, even though we have had a few requests for instant messaging and despite the media hype, I have resisted IM as a legitimate corporate technology. I have yet to see a valid explanation of how this technology would benefit our business. … There are lots of intrusive technologies, and IM has to be one of the most intrusive. But riddle me this: If I can reach you anywhere, anytime on your cell phone, or I can send you an e-mail that you can reply to at your leisure, why do I need instant messaging? Sometimes, just maybe, you might want to be unavailable."

We're going to run out of supporters fairly quickly, but here's another.

"I wouldn't call it indispensable; after all e-mail, e-mail delivered to mobile phones/PDAs, SMS text messaging and telephone calls all can accomplish similar functions," says Fuat Baran. "However, in a distributed work environment with co-workers scattered around the globe, I find instant messaging to be a very useful tool. It allows you to quickly ping someone and see if they are available (sometimes followed up with a voice call if the person is around); it allows you to quickly send information, such as a URL during a voice conversation; it allows for some back-channel communication during teleconferences (yes, this is a two-edged sword, as it can also be a distraction); and it accommodates idle chitchat with remote friends."

Next up we have a former two-pack-a-day man who's cut down to the occasional smoke at happy hour.

"In the past I used IM every day, but it seems I have not used it very much at all in the past year," says Chris Sloop. "Maybe once or twice a month nowadays. I could very easily do with out it."

Here's another an ex-user who's kicked the habit … despite the fact that IM dramatically changed his life.

"IM is a nuisance I don't need, but ironically, it is how I courted my wife," reports Derek Rainwater. "At about the time of AOL's popularity peak ('96-'98), as an entertaining distraction while working for a small software development firm, I developed an entirely online relationship with the young lady who eventually became my wife. After two years, we finally met in person, and our use of IM to communicate was completely eradicated, for obvious reasons. Now, because we're married (5 years) with child (2 years), I have neither the time nor need for this particular distraction. And, in fact, IM is an unproductive distraction from my personal and professional productivity. With an office phone, mobile phone (Treo), and e-mail, I'm already overwhelmed. I neither need nor desire another mode of communication."

Seems as though not all couples see eye-to-eye on the IM thing, either.

"I think you are right, that there are two schools of thought on IM, those who love it and those who hate it," writes Janet Ley. "Personally, I love it. It allows me to multi-task. It quite often allows me to find people who wouldn’t otherwise be found. And, I also know that it’s the only electronic communication here that isn’t tracked or monitored in some way. So, I can make a catty remark to a co-worker without fear of seeing it printed somewhere down the road. … My husband, on the other hand (who is just as big a geek as I am) refuses to use IM. I have begged him to leave his IM up in the daytime so I can shoot him a quick question about child pickup, when he’s coming home, etc. He will not do it. He says he has enough distractions now with the telephone, cell phone, people walking up to him, e-mail, etc. He is not a good multi-tasker and sees this as yet another intrusion."

And maybe it's possible that those who believe they want their spouse on IM all day need to rethink the matter.

"Why people prefer to type instead of talk I’ll never understand," says Jack Miller. "IM is a nuisance I can do without. Kids love IM because it is quiet – and somewhat private – that’s understandable. But in business (unless you want to flirt with someone during a meeting) it doesn’t work. … Since you or I aren’t looking for a relationship it doesn’t work for us."

Try telling that to a teen-ager.

"The only thing we use IM for is as an intercom. It is a great way to tell my boss that there is someone on hold for them," says Alan Portman. "Having said that, let me tell you about IM and high schoolers. My counterpart at a private school that has a one-to-one computing policy (each student has their own laptop) described the following scene to me one day: Two students were sitting across from one another in the cafeteria. They were in an IM session with each other. Their laptops could almost touch. When he asked why they didn't just talk, they said they had too much to say for that. … I also somewhere have a picture from a high school party: It is of everyone's cell phone in a clump recharging. Texting, games and pictures burned up everybody's battery. Texting was as much a part of the evening (judging from the pictures) as the music and dancing."

Never inhaled: That's Dan Wakeman's story and he's sticking to it.

"I’ve never used it," says Wakeman, before adding: "I helped a user with a legitimate business need circumvent a firewall issue and an e-mail attachment-size limitation once by using IM to transfer a file. That is hardly what it is intended for though. Other than it being free, pick up the phone, I say, because that’s more instant than instant messaging."

It's not getting any prettier for IM from here on out.

"I do not use IM. I simply have found no need for it in my day-to-day activities," says Bill Davies. "In fact, I find that IM is like one of those 'only available through this special TV offer' products. It is presented with a lot of hype about how you can't possibly survive without it, but upon sober consideration does nothing that can't be done easier and cheaper through other means. This is probably because I am one of those people (and there are actually a lot of us out there) that adopt new technology only when it can be shown to improve our work or lifestyle. Why, my cell phone doesn't even have a camera or downloadable ring tones. But it does handle phone calls extremely well and that is the reason I bought it."

From George Grenley: "I don't use IM much. Never have. I only use it a wee bit in context with Skype calls. Why not? Several reasons:

"1. Prejudice. I still tend to think of it as something for kidz to talk k00l with.

"2. Annoyance about the first time I was IM'd, then called on the phone to ask why I wasn't responding instantly to IM. I don't need another source of interruptions.

"3. IM seems to be the worst of e-mail and phone. It's as interruptive as phone, but lacks the advantage of human interaction and tone of voice. As an e-mail program, it has a lousy GUI compared to 'real' e-mail programs.

"4. E-mail is damn fast anyway. Eudora checks my mail almost constantly, so I can chat by e-mail anyway, in a way that is easier to use, fits my workflow and is as fast anyway.

"Now, for balance: Recently I was working with a startup that was somewhat geographically diverse. One of the ways we stayed connected was that we opened a group IM session every morning, and just commented through the day. The understanding was that it was just a coordinating tool. A software engineer might inquire as to whether someone had debugged X, or check on the new module for Y, or whatever. There was a wee bit of social chatter, too, but it stayed in the background. So IM-type tools can have their uses."

From Mariano Reyes: "For security (and productivity) reasons, we don't allow Internet IM in our office, but we do have in-house IM installed. It's neither indispensable nor a nuisance I don't need; more like a nuisance I do need on occasion. I don't get many IM messages, but it comes in handy to have people get a hold of me to ask a quick question if I'm at a meeting or traveling and connecting through the VPN. For my part, it's equally useful to get a hold of people who are often on the road (but connected to our VPN) or someone from an overseas office without having to make international calls. It allows for quick resolution of minor problems but can be very disruptive if you're trying to concentrate on something and are bombarded by IM requests. "

From Phil Daley: "It's OK. I probably wouldn't have been using it except my boss requires it. Everyone in our group has to be IM-available while they are working. The IM client choice is open. Some, like me, use AOL but others use some free client that I tried and didn't like. The best part is being available to friends and family on AOL IM. This includes my wife, so she doesn't have to phone me (long distance) anymore, and just IMs with questions and answers. I think it's convenient, but not indispensable."

From Keith Rosenberg: "What is IM good for? The only IM I have ever used has been on a few support Web sites. I do not see any vital use for it. And if your IM buddies are off-line then you still have to resort to e-mail or a call so it does not supplant them. IM is another way for malware to get in so I guess it is useful to spammers and botmasters."

Have something else to say about IM? There's plenty of room below.


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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