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A Buttoned-Down AOL IM?Consumer Version Suits Most

There's a lot to be said for bringing more business functionality to what has primarily been a consumer application. The test for tech vendors is to develop services that businesses will buy and their employees will use.

America Online and WebEx Communications last week teamed up to provide an instant-messaging service for businesses that includes online conferencing and collaboration.

Perhaps the second time's a charm.

WebEx, a provider of conferencing and collaboration tools, partnered with Yahoo in 2003 to integrate its Meeting Center with Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition. Yahoo later closed its enterprise software division to focus on consumers and stopped distributing its enterprise IM client in 2004. AOL got out of the enterprise IM business in the same year, handing its AIM Enterprise Gateway customers to corporate IM vendor IMlogic (now part of Symantec).

But AOL and WebEx are convinced businesses crave more structure, options, and tangible results from what has largely been a free-for-all form of communication.

IM's MomentumYet its simplicity is much of its appeal. Instant messaging remains dominated by consumer applications from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, along with recent entrants such as Apple iChat and Google. IBM Lotus and Microsoft offer business versions of IM, as do Omnipod, Communicator, and others. But none has come close to approaching the popularity of the consumer versions, even among businesspeople.

There were 816 million consumer IM accounts worldwide on public networks and 51 million enterprise IM accounts on business systems last year, according to the Radicati Group, a messaging market research firm. Yet many with consumer accounts use them at work. There are 135 million business IM users, Radicati estimates, a number it projects will reach 477 million by 2009.

Instant messaging on the job has given rise to companies like Akonix and FaceTime, and Symantec's IMlogic, which offer products for administrative control, auditing, and security of consumer instant messaging. Regulated industries such as securities and banking already have embraced these tools. But WebEx thinks businesses are ready for another IM service, since so many employees use it every day. .

AIM Pro will come in two flavors: a professional edition for individuals and small and midsize businesses, and an enterprise edition with administrative controls for large companies. Both will use company directory services and let users initiate conference calls, online meetings, and desktop sharing 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 be able to connect. Cost will be a big factor, but AOL hasn't set AIM Pro's price. A public beta is planned in March, with a more polished version coming in the spring.

Who Wants This?

There's a big question how many companies want souped-up, buttoned-down, fee-based IM services. In a 2004 post on his blog 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."

IBM is making its own renewed pitch at business IM, by trying to link consumer and enterprise messaging. The company says by later this year it'll let users of its Lotus and Domino products connect with IM tools from AOL, Google, and Yahoo. The connections will occur through a secure gateway based on Session Initiation Protocol.

There's a lot to be said for bringing more business functionality to what has primarily been a consumer application. The Radicati Group predicts enterprise IM will grow to be a bigger part of the market, but it'll take several years. The test for tech vendors is to develop services that businesses will buy--and employees will use.

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