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Biz users prep for IM onslaught

Nov 18, 20026 mins
Messaging AppsMicrosoftNetworking

As consumer instant-messaging tools take root in corporate America, network executives are scrambling to deploy gateways to control their usage while also exploring more long-term strategies.

As consumer instant-messaging tools  take root in corporate America, network executives are scrambling to deploy gateways to control their usage while also exploring more long-term strategies.

Vendors have responded to the need this past month as Yahoo, AOL and last week Microsoft’s MSN all introduced gateways for corporate networks that address the shortcomings of consumer instant-messaging services by providing customer-based security, logging, auditing and user management controls (See stories on AOL and MSN ).

The immediate message is that network executives can no longer merely block grass-roots adoption of free instant-messaging clients or let them run wild on their networks. And for the long term it signals that corporations need infrastructures to support instant messaging, which experts say is showing it can foster productivity, especially when integrated with corporate applications.

Business use of IM increasing

Business use of instant messaging is expected to rise from 65.5 million users today to 260 million by 2006, according to IDC. The percentage of those using it for business is expected to rise from fewer than 40% today to nearly 90% by 2006.

Many companies are just starting to address instant messaging by learning about what is running on their networks today.

“We created quite an uproar in June when our [regulatory] compliance department discovered [instant messaging] and said we had to ban its use,” says Lee Blackmore, director of IT for Stifel Nicolaus, a brokerage firm in St. Louis.

Blackmore says a group of institutional brokers lobbied to keep their AOL Instant Messenger clients, which they had deployed without permission. He was forced to quickly deploy a management system, so he installed a gateway from IMLogic that provides user management and logs everything in the company’s archiving system.

“Now we are sitting back and waiting to see how the industry moves forward and how the standards mature before we develop a corporate strategy on [instant messaging],” he says. “We are interested in reliability and control and positioning ourselves for future growth.”

Blackmore says he is looking at IBM/Lotus Sametime, the forthcoming Greenwich instant-messaging server from Microsoft, a private financial services instant-messaging network from Reuters and the possibility of keeping his gateway.

Control IM outbreaks

Experts say Stifel Nicolaus is typical of companies that control outbreaks of instant messaging with hybrid systems combining consumer networks and corporate-controlled gateways. But corporate adoption is likely to turn on enterprise-grade systems and not retrofitted consumer services.

Those corporate systems will be based on the Internet Engineering Task Force’s recently minted Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE ), which promises to create an environment comparable to e-mail and its Simple Mail Transfer Protocol in terms of interoperability.

SIMPLE also erodes the model used so deftly by AOL to build a customer base of 180 million, mainly that users can only send instant messages to other AOL users. With standards, companies along with their customers and business partners won’t have to use the same platform or service.

Instead, analysts say corporate systems will need to excel in providing integrated management controls and tools to build instant messaging into collaborative and line-of-business applications. Gartner predicts that by 2005, instant messaging will be integrated into half of the applications businesses use to interact with channel partners and customers.

“We have long felt that [instant messaging] is becoming a feature and not a product and will be most useful when used in the context of other applications,” says Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC. “Increasingly there will be fewer customers that buy gateway products to use with consumer instant-message networks. Enterprise products will win out as the standards progress.”

Vertical markets such as financial services and government have gone through that cycle and have signed on to or created private networks, such as the one Reuters launched last month based on SIMPLE. And there are individual companies in front of the curve with fully deployed corporate instant-messaging systems. Osterman Research says 29% of companies have adopted a standard platform and 73% of those have settled on IBM/Lotus Sametime, clearly the leader in the enterprise market.

“We went through the cycle 12 months ago when we came out of an AOL pilot and 80% of the users liked instant messaging, but our security group had some caveats,” says Dave Stuttard, vice president of applications for Avnet Computer Marketing in Tempe, Ariz., which distributes enterprise computer systems to resellers.

“We wanted to control the registration process; we wanted to control the encryption, file and application sharing; and we didn’t want to be at the mercy of their service,” he says. A year ago the company built its own instant-messaging infrastructure with Sametime and used the Lotus tool kit to embed instant messaging in other applications such as its Web-based Configuration Request application, which lets customers initiate an instant-messaging session with support staff if they have questions.

The company also hosts instant-messaging services for its customers, letting their employees open instant-messaging accounts, as a way to build loyalty and ease business communication. “I wouldn’t be able to leverage that relationship with a consumer service,” Stuttard says.

Waiting for vendor adoption

He says he is watching for vendor adoption of SIMPLE, which is supported in Sametime 3.0 and a handful of other products, because it will foster interoperability, resulting in an explosion in instant message use and a new round of IT concerns. But for now he says instant messaging has fostered awareness as to who is online, helped decrease long-distance phone calls and reduced decision-making cycles.

“There is no evidence that anyone wants us to switch it off,” he says. “It is a natural way for us to do business. It’s complementary to the way we communicate.”

Last week, Microsoft unveiled its MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises, and the previous week AOL introduced its AIM Enterprise Gateway. A month earlier, Yahoo introduced Enterprise Edition 1.0. In general, all provide the ability to integrate users with corporate directories, and log and archive traffic. All three integrate technology from one or both of the two leading gateway providers, Facetime Communications and IMLogic.

Microsoft’s offering is a precursor to the enterprise-class instant-messaging platform, code-named Greenwich, it says it will ship mid-2003 as an add-on to the Windows .Net Server 2003 operating system. AOL is offering a support service and tools to integrate its service into corporate applications, and Yahoo is working with BEA Systems, Sun, Oracle and Novell as it and AOL attempt to cross from consumer to enterprise provider.

“The market is still young, and all these providers still have a chance to make inroads,” says Michael Osterman, principal of Osterman Research. He says IBM/Lotus and Microsoft are likely to dominate, with AOL a potential wild card.