Instant Messaging Comes Of Age In Business

Instant Messaging (IM) has historically been looked at with some level of disdain in a corporate environment for some good reasons:

Disruption. Mass adoption of IM is younger than any other means of communicating. Therefore, the etiquette for IM is not as evolved. Furthermore, the potential for increasing workplace productivity by an 'always on 24x7 availability' for work purposes can be significantly hampered by 'an always on 24x7 availability' for social and personal communication. Your 'buddy list' can misuse your presence to interrupt.

Security. IM is yet another entry point to your private network from the public network. Thus, viruses and other intrusion vulnerabilities are potential problems.

Informational propriety. The casual nature of this medium increases the likelihood of leakage of confidential information or comments subject to legal liability. This issue is particularly important in industries where communication is regulated like the financial and healthcare fields.

Lack of standards and interoperability. The three major services (AOL, Yahoo! and MSN) and many smaller services do not interoperate. Like the early days of e-mail, I must use an AOL client if I want to send a message to someone on the AOL network and a different one for the MSN network. In addition, there is no single set of features that IM includes and does not include.

Impersonality. Despite the popularity of icons that are used to convey emotion in IM, the pace of IM devoid of tone, nuance, and body language can further deteriorate the unspoken elements of communication.

Ownership of digital identity. With the consumer IM options, the IM identities of your employees and, by extension, of your company is lost. The services probably know too much about your people. And your control of the process is nearly non-existent. The reason is that the services use servers and software to communicate, which you have no control over.

Many of these historical concerns are being addressed. In mid-October, Microsoft announced enhancements to its corporate IM service that will weave in features commonly found in their Outlook e-mail software. If you're like me, IM was something the kids did with their friends, but that all changed several years ago when I wanted a quick answer to a question but the person with the answer was on the phone. Now, with IM enabled office wide, I can still 'chat' with my coworkers even if they're on the phone. That makes us both more efficient.

I love the code-naming used by our friends in Redmond. The new enterprise IM client is code-named Istanbul. Not sure where these exotic code names come from, but Istanbul resembles the Windows Messenger software that's currently found in Windows XP. The difference is that a user's IM information is synchronized with Outlook's calendar and scheduling information. Istanbul further connects to common desk phones and serves up an alert when someone calls. People can then route the call to their cell phone or voice mailbox.

Istanbul is a feature within Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 (LCS), software that initially launched (Live Communications Server 2003 and then 2004) as a way for companies to offer secure IM to their employees.

With Istanbul, Microsoft is taking another step toward incorporating IM 'presence' into its other popular products such as Outlook and Microsoft Office. Presence technology is designed to let people channel many communication types to their phone or Internet device of choice. It can tell other contacts where those same people can be reached when they're offline or whether they can be reached at all. Future applications will include Internet voice calling (VoIP) and the ability to set up live meetings with other contacts using LCS. And, LCS 2005 will interoperate with AOL and Yahoo!

The new features found in Istanbul can be used only if companies install LCS 2005, currently in release to manufacturing status, and Exchange server software. LCS 2005 is expected to launch by the end of the year.

And what about search darling Google? Although few people seem to realize it, Google already owns an IM client called Hello that it picked up this summer with its acquisition of photo-sharing service Picasa.

I can hear you now: This doesn't apply to accounting firms. But you might be interested to learn that your fellow accountants considered this important enough to include as one of the 'Top 10 Technologies' for 2005 (see page 4). It came in at number six, up from number 10 in 2004. Here's what Anne Stanton, president of the Norwich Group, had to say about IM:

'Instant Messaging and Secure Instant Messaging usage continues to proliferate at businesses in 2004. IM is an interruption and a software package that can instantly indicate if someone is online. There are times when an interruption is just what is called for, and, if you are doing business globally or among multiple offices, the online indicator can truly help with efficiency and cut down on voice mail tag.'

It just confirms that the convergence of communications technologies is still on the move and picking up momentum. I suspect that in a few years the device we're using will be ubiquitous, and we'll (most of the time) be reachable if we want to be.

You'll remember that what is now LCS was included with versions of Exchange 2000. With the release of Exchange 2003, the IM server application was stripped out and is now purchased separately. Irrespective of the motivation behind this move, you should take a serious look at this technology.

Mr. Goodfellow is a partner of BKR Fordham Goodfellow, LLP, and manages its wholly-owned subsidiary One Tech, LLC. He can be reached at 503-648-6651 ext. 115 or