Instant Messaging: Its Not Just For Fun Anymore

I'm a big believer in making the most from the least. Take those simple instant-messaging programs, for example.

Im a big believer in making the most from the least. Take those simple instant-messaging programs, for example.

Way too many people think that instant messaging (IM)— whether its ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), or some other program—is just another way to waste time on the Net. I used to agree.

With IM, you can burn away hours flirting with strangers. But IMing also can be a useful business communications tool. Yeah, I didnt believe it either. If I wanted to talk to someone, Id call them up or use e-mail.

Then my writing colleague, Mary Jo Foley, talked me into trying AIM. Boy, had I been wrong. IMing doesnt interrupt my work flow the way a phone call does. And, unlike e-mail, when I need an answer right now, I can get an answer right now. For me, IMing has turned out to be the perfect compromise between the fast-connect, but work-slowing phone call, and the reliable, but sometimes slow e-mail message.

Because Sm@rt Partner takes the idea of the distributed office to the ultimate extreme—our staff is located across the continent, and my nearest "office mate" is 70 miles away—IM is also very useful for "water cooler" chats.

Some managers may think thats a waste of time (Yes, Steve, I do. Get back to work. —editor Rory Thompson). Its not. If you have stay-at-home employees, as more and more companies do, they need some way of feeling that theyre part of a team. Some of us do fine on our own. But most employees, once the novelty has faded, want some contact with their fellows. IMing gives them that without costing the business a penny in long-distance charges.

Technically, IMing still has problems. There is no IM standard. If youre using Microsofts IM client, youre simply not going to reach anyone on AIM. Because of that, Im currently running both the Yahoo IM and AIM … and I hate that.

If youre going to introduce IM as part of your communications infrastructure, you need to settle on one product.

You also need to set up security policies. Right now, almost everyone I know uses public IM servers. That will change, as businesses officially adopt IM. Firewalls can block IM clients, so youll also need to decide how to handle IM at the firewall. I think the first part of the solution to those problems will be for vendors to take their public IM systems and add either encryption or secure-socket-layer security to their IM connections. Then theyll want to run their own IM servers, rather than rely on public ones. Next, the customers will want their servers and clients behind firewalls or, at the least, will want to keep them on a virtual private network.

Not only is IM already becoming an important tool for getting business done, but it also will become part of the network infrastructure. And that, of course, means more integration business for you. IMing: Its not just for fun anymore.