Pigeon post for the 21st century

Instant messaging has traditionally been a means for workers to fill idle moments with chat. As companies put it to more formal...

Instant messaging has traditionally been a means for workers to fill idle moments with chat. As companies put it to more formal use, it promises to revolutionise internal communications - and perhaps middleware, too.

Any lingering doubts visitors at the Java One show in June had about the value of instant messaging in a corporate environment were laid to rest when the Sun/AOL joint venture iPlanet gave them a sneak peak at the beta version of its instant messaging server. Instant messaging has been a favourite among technology-savvy office workers for some months, but institutionalising it for business gain promises to be the next way to squeeze extra value out of IT.

Instant messaging became popular before 1998 when AOL bought Tel Aviv-based Mirabilis, which owned the ICQ (I Seek You) service. Even then, the company was claiming eight million users, and Yahoo had been operating its own messaging system before that. Today, many more companies are in on the act, with Microsoft heading the field.

Instant messaging is an attractive concept, but is often confused with that other consumer trend, short message service (SMS) text messaging, and with unified messaging. The essence of instant messaging is simple. It consists of just two components: synchronicity and presence awareness. Synchronicity involves the ability to exchange information in real time. At the moment, this information is generally text, leading to the online chat sessions that are attractive to office workers.

The other important element, presence awareness, lets you know whether your correspondent is online or disconnected, and can even let you know if they are away from their desk or typing you a message. Services such as SMS don't offer this at present. Office workers - especially bored ones - love it, because it means they can maintain a list of online friends, not necessarily in the same company, and chat to them when they appear online.

Business managers are unlikely to find idle chatter such as this attractive. Nevertheless, companies are waking up to the relevance of this technology in a corporate context. If you can chat to your girlfriend across the Internet when you should be working, you can also chat to fellow workers to make your working time more efficient.

John Kirk, president of instant messaging software firm CE Software, says quick answers is a particularly useful application for instant messaging. In technical support applications, for example, it is useful to be able to send a message to someone for a quick answer while you are on the telephone. The same goes for answering queries in other departments such as sales. Secretaries, meanwhile, can use it to inform their bosses when an important call comes in, giving them the opportunity to end a less important call.

At this level, it is really nothing more than an electronic version of putting a note underneath someone's nose, but it is a more efficient way of doing so. Kirk says things start becoming more interesting when a corporate instant messaging system allows you to send messages to more than one person at a time.

"Let's say I am on the phone and need some specific information instantly, I can send an instant message to two or three people at once and ask, for instance, 'help - what type of firewalls have problems with port 21?'" explains Kirk.

Even for the most forward-thinking early adopters this has been the limit of instant messaging, but some people are trying to push it further. Taking instant messaging on the road by putting it into mobile phones and personal digital assistants is one way to push the envelope, and a number of companies are working towards this end.

Lotus, for example, has announced a wireless version of its Sametime instant messaging client. Stuart McRae, senior product manager for wireless at Lotus, says that initially such a service will be relatively simple, enabling mobile users to display a certain status, informing of their ability to read messages. In the future, however, things will be more sophisticated.

"In a wireless context, we combine information that we can discover about the user," says McRae. "We have had discussions with one equipment manufacturer, where, for example, you could tell whether the phone was in silent mode."

The other opportunity for instant messaging in the wireless sphere is in location-based services, where an instant messaging service would know where the phone was and would give that information to instant messaging "buddies". This could lead to integration with a groupware system, for example, which would be able to know where a particular employee was. That could be useful, for example, for someone wishing to arrange a meeting.

However, it will take a lot more movement from the wireless telephony service providers to make this happen, because they need to make the information from the network available. Nigel Oakley, director of marketing at wireless messaging company OpenWave, says carriers are still not providing this information, thereby limiting the capabilities of software providers and handset manufacturers.

However, it will not be long before location-based information is available, following deals made between key carriers and some location-based software companies, such as Cambridge Positioning Systems. In the meantime, handset suppliers are building their own instant messaging infrastructures. Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, for example, are working on a joint instant messaging solution called the Wireless Village which will create a set of specifications for wireless instant messaging, it is hoped by the end of the year.

But will everyone use them? One of the biggest challenges facing the development of the instant messaging market is interoperability. A battle has been raging between Microsoft and AOL, for example, following attempts by Microsoft to make its MSN Messenger client interact with the back-end instant messaging infrastructure underlying the AOL Instant Messenger service. AOL blocked Microsoft's client from doing so, citing security concerns, although that didn't stop the company from signing an instant messaging interoperability deal with Lotus. It could be argued that AOL is more sympathetic to Lotus because the latter is an IBM company, that has traditionally positioned itself closely to Sun Microsystems, making it part of the Sun/AOL axis which developed in opposition to Microsoft.

Whatever the reason behind such political wrangling, it makes things difficult for companies that want to hook their instant messaging software into that of other companies. When two firms, each using a different instant messaging system, want to exchange instant messages, it creates problems.

Several interoperability movements have emerged to try and solve the problem, including the IMUnified consortium of instant messaging companies, of which AOL is not a member. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is also working on an interoperability standard, as are other parties. The depressing fact is that this follows a set pattern - any new, promising technology usually goes through a standards battle before settling down, but the short-term uncertainty proves to be a barrier to growth.

In the meantime, we can only dream about the potential for instant messaging which extends beyond the basic notion of text chat. It does not take a leap of faith to envisage the connection of instant messaging software with traditional message-oriented middleware, such as IBM's MQSeries or BEA's Tuxedo.

It is still difficult to convince many middleware suppliers of the value of such an enterprise, but it will come, albeit slowly. One application, for example, could be the use of an instant messaging system pulling in presence awareness and location information from instant messaging-enabled handsets carried by sales personnel in the field. A back-end application, constantly updated with price information on particularly volatile products or components, would monitor the instant messaging information for each salesperson, noting when they were in the vicinity of particular customers who would benefit from sales discounts on a particular product. The application could then send an instant message to the salesperson's handset, instructing them to offer an up-to-the-minute discount on a product to that customer.

Or for example, an engineer carrying out a maintenance operation on a complex item of machinery could be assisted if sensors in the machine were linked to a central control unit that could make information about itself available on an instant messaging basis to a central server. If the engineer flicked a wrong switch, for example, a message could be sent to his handset informing him of the mistake.

There are signs that the development community has caught on to these possibilities - an open source, XML-based instant messaging project called Jabber has a branch of development called Jabber As Middleware, for example.

Mark Croft, Microsoft's lead product manager in Windows XP team in the US, has a handle on the potential benefits of product integration. "We are trying to get corporate customers to see that instant messaging is just one part of an infrastructure," he says. "We are trying to provide a whole new class of applications that sit underneath another business application."

For the time being, however, Microsoft appears to be relying on unified communications with its recently announced Windows Messenger product. This uses the increasingly popular IP protocol from the IETF to merge various communications media such as text, voice and video into a single instant messaging client.

One of the biggest challenges for the company is that its instant messaging protocol stack and protocols are based on the older, component object model application programming interfaces (APIs), rather than its new Web service-friendly .net APIs, which puts a spanner in the works from a middleware perspective. Mark Lee, who is on the same Windows XP team, hopes that the primary rate interfaces will be compatible with .net by the time they ship.

Instant messaging still has a long way to go before it breaks the surface of the corporate market, but some things are already clear:

  • It could herald the rebirth of push technology - which proved to be an initial flop - in a new form

  • It will be a great way to unite the wireless and peer-to-peer technologies that are currently floundering around looking for a market. It is going to be an interesting ride, but until the various players sort out a universal standard, corporate adoption will be anything but instant.

Mine of instant messaging information
  • Jabber - this open source initiative is working on an XML-based instant messaging platform.

  • Quicksilver - the QS instant messaging software does not require any downloads, says the company.

  • 2Way - this collaborative software supplier offers a piece of instant messaging software called 2WayIM.

  • Ikimbo - sells Omniprise, an instant messaging platform for security. It includes wireless support.

  • Bantu - offers a presence-aware, device-independent messaging platform.

  • Messagevine - wireless, personal digital assistants and desktop clients are supported by Messagevine's instant messaging server architecture, which is aimed at service providers and telephony carriers.

Case study: Lessing Flynn Advertising on call even when on the phone
Even on a small level, instant messaging can deliver benefits. Lessing Flynn, an advertising agency based in west Chicago, US, has been using the Quickeys instant messaging package from CE Software to make communications within the company more efficient.

Joe Rosenberg, executive vice-president for the small company, is also responsible for handling its IT. He installed the software on 20 Macintosh computers and used an idle backup machine as its server.

"We spend a lot of time on the phone, and we have lots of questions for clients that I can't always answer. If I know the person that I need to get the information from is there, I will use a quick conference message," he says.

Similarly, people can use the system to alert executives to urgent events, without interrupting conversations. "They can kick me a message that says, 'an important client is on the phone', and I can either end my current call or send a message back saying that I will call them later."

Rosenberg also uses another product from CE Software called In/Out Tracker, which staff can use to notify the instant messaging system whether they are in or out of the office. Products such as AOL Instant Messenger have something similar already built in.

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