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Instant Messaging Grows Up

Tuesday, January 25, 2000
Wired News
by Katie Dean

When people think of instant messaging, most conjure up the image of teenagers gossiping, flirting, and wasting time.
They don’t think of it as a killer app that’s reshaping communications.
Millions of adults are now flocking to IM. They use it for business negotiations, real-time reminders, medical emergencies, or any time email isn’t fast enough. And the new craze will only keep spreading, as IM becomes available on pagers, televisions, and handhelds.
IM has been a boon for hearing impaired students at Gallaudet University. Michael Kaika, director of media relations at the school, estimates that 70 percent of the students and faculty use it on a regular basis.
Kaika, who himself is deaf, calls it a “godsend.”
“In my line of work, using IM is the best thing since sliced bread,” Kaika said in an interview conducted via IM. “Years ago, I had to rely on an interpreter to chat with media people. But now, rarely do I need to do that.”
Students often use instant messaging instead of teletype machines (TTYs) connected to telephones to communicate with friends and relatives. “I am comfortable in saying that deaf people now rely on IM more than on TTYs,” wrote Kaika.
IBM started using instant messaging in a big way internally a few years ago, and last year released its own product for business users. Lotus SameTime encrypts instant communications and works behind a firewall.
“It’s gone from an experiment to a mission-critical operation,” said John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology at IBM. “It’s become a way of life — a way of doing business.”
Patrick said that IBM employees send over 1 million instant messages a day to each other. Instant messaging has significantly reduced the amount of email. Instead of quick inquiries cluttering in-boxes, co-workers can communicate while a question is still fresh. They don’t have to cross their fingers and wonder if or when the person on the other end will answer.
It’s also created what Patrick calls a “backchannel.”
IM has also become a critical negotiating tool. Attorneys use it to pass one another private messages at the bargaining table. And during phone interviews, employees can remind one another to discuss a certain topic.
IBM has begun testing a real-time language translation feature for SameTime. For example, when an English speaker types a message to a French speaker, the message appears in French, and vice-versa.
Eventually, it will all combine to create a “real-time multilingual intercom,” Patrick said.
Instant messaging is also being used by doctors and their patients in clinical trials. PHT has developed LogPad, a patient-specific software that runs on
handheld devices.
LogPad is customized to send vital information from angina, diabetes, and asthma patients directly to their doctors. When patients have an emergency, it pages their physician.
“When you put the full set of information over the Web — automatically, electronically, and instantaneously — the doctor has a much better picture of how the patient is doing,” said Jim Becker, president of PHT. “It forges a much stronger link between the patient and the doctor.”
Becker estimated that LogPad will be on the market in another 12 to 18 months.
IM is not without its drawbacks. Constant accessibility can be annoying.
“There are times when I don’t have a lot of time to chat via IM,” wrote Kaika of Gallaudet. “I could put a block on it and prevent them from calling, but I’d rather not do that. I don’t want to offend people, so I just tell them I am short on time and can’t chat right now.”
Jupiter Communications analyst David Card said that as the technology spreads to devices like television, it may become more of a nuisance than a benefit.
People may not want to watch TV with a computer on their lap, Card said. And instant messages that appear when more than one person is watching a show may be intrusive to other people.
Nancy Clare Morgan, a publicity manager for Doubleday Books Division of Random House in New York, has IM turned on all day at work. But she doesn’t see it as a problem since she knows she can always turn it off.
“Time away from technology is an option we should always have,” Morgan said.
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