Instant messaging could almost be considered as “the grand daddy” of real-time collaboration applications. IM has its roots in IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which if Wikipedia is accurate, dates back to 1988 (and has its own roots in other IP-based chat services such as Bitnet).
For many, including myself, IM has become the preferred means of communication. I, like many as well, have accounts on multiple IM systems, which I manage through a single application (Adium on the Mac, Gaim on the PC). For most people, IM is still predominantly a text-based chat application though most public and enterprise IM services now support VOIP. Even for VOIP-centric services such as Skype, I’d be willing to bet that it is used far more for text messaging than for live voice calls.
Why has IM become so popular? I think it is due to the fact that it is currently the least invasive way of communicating with someone. IM’s don’t interrupt people as much as phone calls. They don’t require constant attention, you can simply read the IM, go back to what you are doing, and respond at a later time. And, conversations can go on for long period of times. For example, I kept a running IM conversation with three colleagues over the last week as we worked on developing a chapter of our “Building a Successful Virtual Workplace” benchmark. I found it incredibly helpful to not only have the constantly open channel for communications, but also the log of previous messages. I imagine that if I had to pick up the phone every time I had a question, I would find that my colleagues had set their phone systems to automatically dump me into voice mail.
Finally, there’s the concept of presence, allowing individuals to see who’s on-line before initiating conversation, or using their own presence status to keep interruptions to a minimum. For project team members, presence is invaluable, maybe more important than e-mail.
So now that we’re nearing the 20th birthday for Internet-based chat, what’s on the horizon? I think the answer is two-fold; integrating Web 2.0 concepts into IM, and extending the functionality of IM services. The Web 2.0 is already starting to happen. Vendors in the enterprise IM space are already demonstrating mash-up capabilities in their applications, such as the ability to show location information in addition to presence, or the ability to integrate application information, such as performance reporting into the buddy list, turning the IM client into a management support system.
Beyond simple text-based chat we’re seeing a number of new innovations. Companies like Parlano and Instant Technologies wrap persistent chat rooms around enterprise IM services, bringing hoot-and-holler type services to the world of IM. Other companies such as Orchestria enable sophisticated IM management. I think the market for innovative applications that deliver specific business applications around IM is just now developing, and will be an area to closely watch over the next 12-18 months.
Finally, there’s still the issue of IM integration. Here we continue to make progress as a number of public IM networks now interconnect with enterprise IM platforms from Microsoft, IBM, and Jabber. But we still need to do more. We still need a deeper level of integration among the public IM services themselves. We wouldn’t tolerate a phone system that only allowed AT&T customers to only call other AT&T customers. We certainly shouldn’t stand for the current environment of islands of IM. Maybe by the time we get to IM 3.0, we’ll solve this last, and perhaps most pressing, issue.