Everybodys Doing IM

Instant messaging is not just for kids.

Bear with us when we tell you that instant messaging isnt kids stuff anymore. We know, we know, youre thinking of ubergeeks using ICQ to play multiple-user dungeons or teenage girls using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) to virtually squeal over who has the cuter singers: N Sync or the Backstreet Boys. Trust us. Thats only the surface. Instant messaging is rapidly becoming as popular in business as it is with the chatty teenage magpies.

Take us, for example. With a distributed staff from New York to San Francisco, keeping everyone on the same page can be difficult. Several [email protected] Partner staffers, however, keep in constant touch with one another by using AIM and Yahoo Messenger. Cheaper and not as intrusive as a phone call, but with more immediacy than e-mail, instant messaging (IM) has proven to be a real plus for keeping business communications going.

Were not the only ones. John Patrick, IBMs VP of Internet technology, is on record stating that more than 65,000 employees use IM. He also thinks, according to a Wall Street Journal interview, that, "were probably [only] 5 percent of the way into the real impact that instant messaging is going to have."

Its not just tech-savvy crews that can benefit. Forrester Research chides AOL and Yahoo for not looking away from the admittedly lucrative consumer IM market to the potentially even more profitable business market. Whether its co-workers chatting about a project, customer-service personnel helping a client, or a buyer checking with the warehouse to make sure the goods are on their way—IM, Forrester claims, has a great deal of utility for both internal company and B2B communications.

Lotus and Microsoft, to name two, have gotten the idea. Lotus Sametime, and Microsofts Exchange Server both support IM, and—forget about teenagers—businesspeople are their market. Microsofts Hailstorm initiative, for example, is meant to supply single sign-on for multiple Web services, whether youre using PCs, cell phones or a PDA. Often, MSN Messenger will be the technology glue for those devices.

But its not just technology. Microsoft is also already moving ahead with business plans. On March 22, Microsoft announced that with the Reuters group it is developing a business IM system for financial institutions.

The IM business bandwagon is ready to roll. Its time to get on.

Wheres the Money? Still, it wont always be easy. For one thing, how are you going to make a profit from IM?

We think that you can do so by steering customers away from public IM clients like AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger. They may be free, but you get what you pay for. Business customers have no control over a public IM systems security, maintenance and management.

Want examples? Weve got them. On April 3, AIM went out of service. Days later, the only—and perhaps tongue in cheek—explanation was that unusual solar activity could have knocked AIM off. We dont think many business customers will be amused by a "the sunspots did it!" explanation. You can offer your customers service-level agreements and a responsive technical support and management system the public systems cant.

You also can offer them security for at least internal IM communications. ICQ program users already have fallen into legal entanglements because they didnt realize that ICQ logs IM conversations automatically. By offering private IM services, you can assure your customers that their messages wont sit on public servers for the possible viewing pleasure of a competitor.

And unlike the public servers, you also can offer IM user management. Dont want to let your users trade files over IM as you can with AIM? Want to make sure that IM users are talking only to their business partners and not their domestic ones? Or, as Forrester suggests, would you like to keep a log of IM tech-support conversations for a knowledge base? Only privately maintained IM servers and clients can provide the customization a business needs.

Public IM represents its own security risks. Because files also can be sent along with messages, security policies on the server, firewall and client level need to be established. ICQ is infamous for its multiple service breaches, and its only a matter of time before further attacks are made through the other popular public services.

Finally, another reason were bullish on IM is that for customers, IM has such a low initial price point. They dont need to buy or upgrade equipment or their operating systems. Free or inexpensive, IM clients exist for almost all platforms. Their costs and your profits will always come from long-term service contracts.

Of course, you can just offer all that as part of an enterprise messaging solution. But we think that IM is complex enough, new enough and potentially popular enough that you can offer IM solutions as a separate service. We like the idea of a new revenue stream, and we think you do, too.

Cant Read Your Writing IM compatibility has long been a sore point. As IM becomes more important to vendors other product and service lines, we dont expect to see peace on the IM front in our lifetime. For example, Microsoft plans to build Hailstorm, and thus MSN Messenger, into Windows XP. Havent we seen that before with the bundling of a Web browser into Microsoft operating systems? AOL and other companies already are complaining that that will freeze out their IM offerings. Of course, AOL isnt opening AIMs code all that quickly either and, in fact, continues to block clients that attempt to interoperate with the AIM service.

Several products like Everybuddy, Jabber and Odigo attempt to solve the interoperability problem. As we explain later in this story, we think that those have great possibilities for B2B communications where you can be sure that everyone will be using different clients.

Whos Passing What? We focused our efforts on several products that will allow you to integrate everything in-house—the clients and the servers, as well. We doubt that your clients want to rely upon public services to provide business-critical communications infrastructure, for reasons of security and availability. At the same time, we reasoned that it would be useful to have some element of connectivity to the outside world, and other IM systems. Weve summarized the state of the marketplace in a chart.

Clients with limited IM capabilities are available in recent releases of groupware/messaging/collaboration tools from both Microsoft and Lotus. Lotus, via its Sametime tool, and Microsoft, with its Exchange Instant Messenger, each can converse with themselves, as well as AIM and MSN, respectively. But if you dont want to buy into Notes or Exchange to bring up an in-house messaging system, what are you left with? Quite a lot, actually. At the top of the list is Odigo, which has been concentrating on xSPs to date. However, the company is developing a scaled-down version of its entry-level IM system in conjunction with one of its financial backers, Comverse. (Entry level to Odigo means up to 500,000 users.)

Jabber We really wanted Jabber to work—we even got down on our knees and prayed. And it worked well.

An open source, XML-based client/ server platform, Jabber is the only product we found that can be deployed by an integrator to all-sized user bases (not just ISP-sized, although it can do that, too), while also allowing strict control over the server and client access to Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, ICQ and AIM clients. (We should note that AOL recently blocked Jabber clients and servers from communicating with AIM servers—we guess Jabber got too good).

There are really two versions of Jabber that run in parallel. The Jabber Commercial Server (JCS) 2.0 from Jabber.com is the server you should concern yourself with. It has meat in the form of technical support, training and accountability. It also is scalable to 200,000 concurrent users, backed up by multiserver support and robust security features. It also can integrate with LDAP and SQL servers to store user account information, as well as archive messages to an Oracle database.

Before JCS, Jabber could be best described as a "project." Jabber.org is the center of the Jabber open-source movement and the place where a number of noncommercially supported hosts and clients reside. While youll find cutting-edge innovation at Jabber.org, it is still a testing ground.

We installed Jabber, which runs on Linux and Solaris, and while its not difficult to get up and running, advanced functionality requires Linux/Unix smarts up the wazoo.

Because Jabber is open, additional functionality like conferencing and other IM transports are modules, which are added to jabber.xml—the primary administrative file where the host server is specified along with connection information to other Jabber servers. Once jabber.xml was configured, we pointed our clients to the server and we were chatting.

Jabber clients do not have the same advanced functionality that AIM, Yahoo or MSN messengers do, like VoIP and e-mail notification. Basically, Jabber has chatting, file send and conferencing. And while the Jabber client chats great with the AIM, Yahoo and MSN clients, you can forget about conferencing and file sending. But just chatting and presence information is a giant step forward toward interoperability and chat among all IM services.

Currently, Jabber.com offers multiple-platform support, but Jabber.org offers more, including several for the Macintosh and Windows CE. Still, those clients have a way to go before you deploy them to your clients, lacking even rudimentary formatted text support.

Jabber has great potential, and its the only corporate IM server to interoperate with the big commercial services. Its open-source model provides an excellent opportunity to supply additional value-add.

NetLert NetLert tries too hard to do everything and gets in the way of itself in the process. Whereas Jabber limits its basic functionality to chat and text conferencing, NetLert also offers a whiteboard, alerts and polls. Those would be nice group collaboration features if they were done well, but theyre just plain clunky.

Running on a Java platform, NetLert suffers from Javas inherent slowness—redraws on the whiteboard were painful to watch—but it also adds to cross-platform support for both the server and client on Windows 95/98/ NT4/2000, Linux, Solaris and Mac. Basically, any network your client has, NetLert will run on.

But dont think NetLerts multiplatform support means that it plays well with other IM services or solutions. Theres no connectivity with any other IM platform, which means any of your clients partners also will need NetLert if they are to communicate—advantageous from a security perspective, a drawback on the interoperability side.

Because NetLert is a solution that you can control by putting it behind firewalls or even beyond the reach of the Internet, it is inherently more secure than a service such as AIM. Like Jabber, NetLert also uses SSL encryption to keep inbound/outbound messages safe from prying eyes, and account information can be verified against an NT Domain, LDAP directory or Novell Directory Services.

NetLerts chat and conferencing features were adequate with text formatting and file sending, but the user interface gets in the way of functionality. Double-clicking on a "buddy," for example, should start a chat session with that buddy. Instead, it brings up an alert window, which will send a message to that buddy but wont allow the buddy to respond.

Most of the user interface is this way: Right-clicking and double-clicking either arent enabled or they dont bring up an intuitive menu. Then again, after some training your clients may not feel the same way.

While there is a whiteboard feature, it lacks extended functionality—especially application sharing. About the only thing it does do besides the basic drawing and typing is the capability to display a Web page. But the whiteboard is no browser, so the whiteboard presenter cant click through the Web page.

The Alert functionality is a nice quality, especially for larger organizations. A user can send out pop-up windows with quick messages to the entire organization or parts of the organization. Alerts can send information back to the server, as well, notifying when the user closed the window signaling the user read it.

Those extended features are good things, but with NetLert they get in the way of the core functionality, which is IM and the determination of presence. Theres no attention paid to interoperability, which is where we think NetLert should have devoted some of its resources.

Ever Heard of ICQ? AOLs ICQ Groupware 1.12 beta, like NetLert, is an IM and collaboration platform for the enterprise that doesnt communicate with other IM clients. Unlike NetLert, it doesnt come with SSL encryption to augment its limited security features. Prying eyes can see all conversations. But its slick and clean interface is heads and tails above NetLerts confused GUI.

ICQ Groupware—which is still in beta, not warranting a full review from us—is as full-featured as they come, including chat, online and off-line messages (like Alerts in NetLert), integration with e-mail (including POP3 e-mail notification), file sending and URL invites. And those features are easy to use, with intuitive right-clicks and double-clicks, so your clients wont need any hard-core training.

Aside from basic functionality, ICQ Groupware also supports third-party collaborating voice, video and data applications, which are launchable directly from the ICQ client, including VDOLive VDOPhone, Microsoft NetMeeting and Netscape CoolTalk. Users also can define their own custom applications.

While lacking security features and the "play with others" technology of Jabber, the company is mulling over the idea of making the product interoperate with the tens of millions of registered ICQ members. With that option and the large installed base, ICQ Groupware could be a viable option for your clients collaboration needs.

No Fast-Talk Also worth mentioning are two messaging products that dont exactly fall into our selected category, but are useful nonetheless. First, theres Everybuddy, an IM client for Linux and Unix users that from our experience seems to be able to connect to just about anything. However, it is purely a client and relies upon the transports of the services to which it connects. For text-based messaging and group chat, it does the job well—very well. If thats all you need to offer, Everybuddy gets a thumbs-up from us. Best of all, its available free of charge.

Next, if you dont have the outside world to worry about, and you dont want to spend a lot of time configuring IM clients on every type of operating system known to man, consider Volanos Java-based VolanoChat. To join a conversation, all a user has to do is to point his Web browser to the appropriate URL, and click on a button, which launches a downloaded Java applet. While theres no connectivity to any of the other services, a corporate intranet and/or partner extranet might be a good fit for this product. Everything can be set up from the server. No visits to clients are necessary.

Its easy to hype up IM. By the same token, though, we think theres steak, as well as sizzle here. Our own experience and observations of IM in use in companies—not to mention the incorporation of IM into messaging services by so many software vendors—tell us that B2B IM is the real deal. Thus, were also certain that adding IM to your service offering will lead to real profits.