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AOL Teams With WebEx For Enterprise IM

It's WebEx's second try at partnering with a big consumer IM vendor to get into the enterprise IM market. In 2003, WebEx partnered with Yahoo, only to have Yahoo close its enterprise business unit a few months later.

AOL, Inc. and WebEx Communications, Inc. are teaming up to provide instant messaging service for businesses.

"The idea is to bring AOL instant messaging and the WebEx collaboration suite together in a new and highly integrated way for professional users," says Brian Curry, VP of premium and subscription services at AOL.

For WebEx, the idea is to try again: On June 13, 2003, Yahoo and WebEx announced plans to integrate WebEx Meeting Center with Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition. In October of that year, Yahoo closed its enterprise software division to focus on the consumer space. By mid-2004, Yahoo ceased distributing its enterprise IM client.

In a 2004 blog post titled "Yahoo Cans Enterprise Messenger," Yahoo engineer Jeremy Zawodny wrote, "And it's about time. … The thing really was a freaking money pit." The lesson: "If you're offering a service that customers don't want and it's costing you money, you're probably on the wrong track. Give it up."

Perhaps the second time's a charm.

The corporate IM market has long looked promising, but to date IM remains dominated by consumer applications from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, not to mention nascent efforts by Google and Apple's iChat. IBM Lotus and Microsoft dominate enterprise IM, and Jabber deserves mention as well. According to The Radicati Group, Inc., a messaging market research firm, there were 816 million consumer IM accounts worldwide on the public networks and 51 million enterprise IM accounts on corporate systems at the end of 2005.

But many of those using the consumer IM networks are doing business, which has given rise to companies like Akonix, FaceTime, and IMlogic (now part of Symantec), which address corporate concerns about IM like administrative control, auditing, and security.

The Radicati Group estimates that there are 135 million businesses IM users, a number it projects will reach 477 million by 2009. Many of these work with consumer IM clients that lack corporate security features.

"We've really hit an inflection point where people have brought instant messaging into the workplace and it now has become a business critical tool that people use every day to get their jobs done," says David Knight, VP of product management at WebEx. "The vast majority of this growth is being fueled actually by the consumer networks. The end-users have really voted with their feet, or fingertips. …The growth of the business use of these consumer products has been quite phenomenal."

The new service will be called AIM Pro and will be based on the consumer-oriented AIM service. It will come in two flavors: a professional edition for individual users and SMBs, and an enterprise edition (EIM) with administrative controls specifically designed for large companies. The service will feature online conferencing, collaboration, desktop sharing, and assorted multimedia services.

Both versions will utilize enterprise directory services and will allow users to initiate conference calls and online meetings with some 70 million users of AOL, AIM, ICQ, and Apple iChat services. Other IM companies participating in AOL’s AIM Clearinghouse service and federation agreements will also be able to connect.

Pricing has not been set but Curry and Knight both insist it will be affordable. It had better be given that the consumer alternative is free. A public beta is planned for the end for the end of the quarter, with a more polished version coming in Q2.

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