Instant benefits

Once the domain of Internet buffs and teenagers, instant messaging has moved into the mainstream and is now being considered by...

Once the domain of Internet buffs and teenagers, instant messaging has moved into the mainstream and is now being considered by businesses for customer service and real-time communication. Karl Cushing reports.

If IT managers are finding e-mail communication becoming unmanageable, instant messaging is ready to come to the rescue. According to analyst group Gartner, 2002 will be the year that instant messaging "comes of age" and by 2005 it will be integrated into 50% of the applications that businesses use to interact with their customers.

Instant messaging can complement or replace existing media such as e-mail and voice. Service companies could add instant messaging capabilities to the customer relationship management software supporting their Web sites to provide another communications channel for customers and improve service delivery.

Customers browsing on an e-commerce Web site could click on a link and open an instant messaging window to request more information on a product from an operator. The challenge here will be coping with peaks in demand and the 24x7 nature of the Internet.

There are currently four main suppliers of instant messaging services. MSN Messenger from Microsoft, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Manager and ICQ, which is also owned by AOL. There are lots of other platforms, each with slightly different functionality and a stock of devotees.

This illustrates one of the key problems with instant messaging: the degree of choice and the lack of compatibility. If you use instant messaging regularly, the chances are that you'll know people on a variety of different platforms, all using different client applications. Keeping all of those options on your PC is costly, inefficient and impractical.

Whilst suppliers such as Odigo, Omni and Colibria produce applications that allow users to communicate between different platforms, including all the big four, the price is lost functionality. Instant messaging in its most stripped-down form is less likely to grab the imagination of the business user. Although an undoubtedly useful application in its own right, if it is coupled with application sharing, instant messaging can help employees to collaborate and pool expertise more effectively.

However, business uptake of instant messaging has been hampered by fears of spreading malicious code and the potential for hacking. The development of encryption algorithms and authentication products for instant messaging, supported by the increasing use of firewalls, improved trusted partner features and the use of dedicated servers to keep track of what has been said, have made it more viable in business.

Although many popular anti-virus products do not scan files transmitted via instant messaging, the risk of passing on viruses and worms can be reduced by products from suppliers such as Softwin, which intercept, filter and scan each file for viruses and worms before completing the transfer.

Sending sensitive information over one of the free instant messaging networks is to be discouraged, however. Users run the risk of encountering snoopers and hackers and the problem of authenticating who they are conversing with.

The issue of standards is also being addressed, with the Internet Engineering Task Force developing the Instant Messaging Presence Protocol. Consolidation in the sector will reduce the number of players and thus the size of the problem.

Microsoft is pushing instant messaging into the mobile market. It signed a deal in the US with Verizon Wireless to deliver its product and targeted content to the mobile firm's 30 million customers in May, and has recently agreed to make its instant messaging service available on mobile phones via the short messaging service in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey.

The key area that is driving this technology, however, is the financial services sector. UBS Warburg and banking group ABN Amro both use the MindAlign instant messaging product from Divine to encourage collaboration; enable communication between staff and clients; and gain access to up to the minute information on markets and sales.

Firms in the services sector, such as IT services and consultancy firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, are also adopting this technology. Its consultants use instant messaging to maintain disparate teams and to work more closely with key partners. According to Richard Edwards, a technology management consultant at the firm, the technology provides a valuable channel with the ability to communicate with colleagues, customers and partners in a conversational manner in real time.

The company's adoption of instant messaging has been gradual, initially centred on Microsoft's offerings. However, with proof of concept confirmed, the company began looking around for a more secure and feature-rich alternative and since the end of last year it has been trialling a product from desktop collaboration service firm Groove Networks.

"For the kind of work that I do - collaborating on projects; putting together bids and proposals - Groove is great," says Edwards. The company also uses an application service provider-based collaborative tool, eRoom, and is looking at another collaboration tool, Nextpage.

Instant messaging usage guidelines have been incorporated into Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's security policy and the company is encouraging those with whom it deals to add instant messaging to their list of core applications. "The technology is here, and it's here to stay," says Edwards. "Any business would be foolish to ignore it."

What it can do for you
  • Immediacy of the telephone with the power of written words

  • Easy to use

  • Useful for collaborating on projects and sharing applications

  • Uses less storage than e-mail and a much reduced archiving problem, whilst content is still held at server level.

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