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Get the Message

Monday, August 20, 2001

Publication : PC World
by Michael Desmond

Instant messaging moves to plug the gap between phones and e-mail. In just three years, tens of millions of people have been lured by the prospect of talking to friends and coworkers using instant-messaging software. AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and other services have changed the way people interact online. That revolution is quickly moving inside corporate walls. Industry analysts say that millions of workers use IM–often without the knowledge of their IT departments. The Radicati Group, a consulting and market research firm, predicts that the number of active IM accounts used for business will jump from 28 million in 2000 to 687 million in 2004. Already, more than 250,000 IBM employees use Big Blue’s own Lotus Sametime software to send messages to each other over a network. The U.S. Army has 3100 people using WiredRed’s E/pop. And companies such as Boeing and Dow Chemical use Microsoft NetMeeting for instant collaboration. Should your company consider IM too? Software makers are quick to tout the advantages of enterprise IM. Users can see whether colleagues are available and make quick, efficient contact. For example, a marketing specialist who needs to set up a client briefing can type an instant message inviting a manager to attend. But some experts believe instant messaging fills a space that may not need filling. “Does the value of the interruption equal or exceed the value [of the worker’s task]? That’s a question that isn’t asked enough,” says Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a telecommuting and virtual-office consulting firm. The problem, says Gordon, is that IM presents yet another distraction to workers already inundated by phones, e-mail, and beepers. While users can set IM software to ignore queries, the software still adds another channel of communication to an already busy environment. IT departments must also assess how IM clients will affect system and network performance. Text-based messaging uses little bandwidth and processing power. But comprehensive IM clients often pack features such as a whiteboard, videoconferencing, and application sharing–all of which can consume considerable PC resources and bandwidth. Lou Latham, an analyst at industry research firm Gartner, contends that IM earns its keep. “As far as the individual worker is concerned, this is a major plus.” Management Muddle Latham says that most IT departments already contend with unmanaged IM installations because users download client software from the Internet. A key concern is the fact that IM clients such as those from AOL and Microsoft transact messages over their own servers. As a result, businesses may find sensitive information being transmitted unencrypted over the Internet and landing in the hands of unauthorized parties. Furthermore, an IM system that fails to integrate with existing directory services or other databases could lead to a nightmare of double entries and mismatched settings. IBM says it opted to use Sametime for its massive IM rollout in part because that product taps into standard LDAP servers that store account data. Ultimately, the question may be whether you can afford to avoid instant messaging. With its simple interface, small network footprint, and easy integration, IM promises sizable return for a small investment. “We went from no users to over a quarter of a million users, with no help desk, no support structure, no anything–just word of mouth, says John Patrick, IBM’s vice president of Internet technology. “It’s become a way of life. If we turned it off, I think we’d have a mutiny.”