New Uses for Instant Messaging

A pair of innovative companies are developing technology to help you embrace and extend your IM platform.

Like most companies, youre probably considering, or deploying, instant messaging—or trying to figure out how to coexist with existing products. Youll probably be spending a good deal of time figuring out how to secure it too, so those sensitive messages arent intercepted on the Web, and so that you can keep bad guys out of your system.

But after you put that infrastructure in place, guess what? Its time to build on it. Instant messaging, as it turns out, makes a great platform for a range of different types of applications. And a few innovative companies are already developing technology to help you embrace and extend your IM platform. Here are two of my favorites:

MessageCaster: I had a chance to sit down recently with Royal Farros. Hes the guy who started up T-Maker back in the early nineties, and then iPrint later in the decade. Both were successful companies that made their partners a nice chunk of money. His latest company is designed to turn an instant messaging platform into a broadcast one, turning a one-to-one platform into one-to-many, to quickly get messages out to a wide range of people.

At first the idea seems like a counter-intuitive cow path—trying to shoehorn something best done in e-mail onto this new platform. But there are some pretty sound reasons for doing it. The immediacy of instant messaging ensures that users will get the message as quickly as possible—and that it wont languish in an e-mail box for hours or days. Imagine an airline that needs to inform a range of people about a delay. A broadcast IM would be a good and immediate way to do it. Or maybe you subscribe to a news service where knowing something quickly can mean the difference between profit and loss.

There are even more subtle uses. Perhaps theres a companywide meeting about to start, and you want to send out a quick reminder to the staff. IM is a neat way to do this.

Or think of the phone tree, or an automated information call. Those can cost upward of a penny a call, which can really add up. I live in a small California beach town called Pacifica. Recently a contractor pierced the pipe carrying our water supply, mixing it with raw sewage. The local water company had to get a message out to 25,000 households immediately, telling them not to drink the water. That probably cost them a fair amount of money—as did the daily updates the occurred until the water system was flushed three days later. An IM-based broadcast, at least to those of us with broadband, could have been faster and less expensive.

Even a company like the New York Times could benefit. The online edition is about to start charging for a previously free service—its News Tracker e-mail update service. This service alerts you via e-mail when news breaks. Its a good idea, but as Web publishers know, its hard to start charging for something that was previously free. But imagine if the site added an IM broadcast at the same time. Users would get more for their money, and the service would be more immediate and more useful too.

Its all about presence, and IM gives you that. With a good IM platform, you know when someone is up and active, and you can also guarantee that he saw the message. And IMs much more effective than e-mail—perhaps because its so new. There are claims that its 10 times more effective than e-mail.

Royal also claims that MessageCaster will work with all the dominant IM platforms, which is a real plus. It lets companies bridge AOL, Yahoo and MSNs IM services, ensuring that a single message will go to a mixed user base. However, at the moment, the first version works just with Microsofts Dot Net Alerts, which run on top of the MSN Instant Messaging platform.


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Hold on. What if Spamford Wallace, the Spam King, got his hands on MessageCaster? Couldnt he turn IM into a spammers paradise? Probably not, according to Faros, because you have to give permission to a sender before they can send you an IM. Still, Im concerned about the potential for abuse.

Its a fascinating way to extend the IM platform, but today it doesnt come cheap. If you contract with MessageCast to host the service, youll end up paying $24,500, and if you buy it and run it on your own servers, the cost goes up to $38,500 per CPU. That puts it out of the league for smaller companies, or those that want to trial the product. It also cuts Royal off from a big market—the soccer moms and other group leaders who need a way to quickly tell others that the game is off, the partys been moved because of rain, or playgroups at Friendship Park today.

I suggested a cheap, per-IM monthly charge as a way to get companies in, and Royal said theyd look into it. But he justified the high cost by accentuating the value of getting in touch with people faster using IM. Speed translates into value, and his small company is just going after the large, low-hanging fruit today. Still, its an exciting technology and worth a look after you get your IM infrastructure up and secure.

ActiveBuddy: Heres another interesting IM extension technology. It creates IM robots, which can answer thousands of questions. The band RadioHead used ActiveBuddys technology to create Googly, designed to promote a new album. It could answer upward of 5,000 questions about the band, the music and the album. Whats scary is not that there are 5,000 answerable questions about RadioHead, but that the technology is so lifelike.

Although itll never pass the Turing Test, it does create oddly humanoid robots. Dell even created one for its obnoxious spokesdweeb Steve, which luckily has been decommissioned.

In the corporate world, PeopleSoft is working to add ActiveBuddy capabilities to its HR system. Imagine if your employees could simply IM an HR-bot to ask about vacation time and benefits enrollment, as well as ask other simple questions. Head to the Active Buddy site for a preview of this technology.

There are probably other uses at your company, up to and including replacing that obnoxious co-worker in the next cube who never seems to get anything done. Its worth checking out too.

Jim Louderback can be reached at