Instant Messaging: Time For IT To Pay Attention

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Melanie Turek, Contributor

January 6, 2004

14 Min Read

Instant messaging is transforming from a rogue technology, brought into the enterprise by employees who want to use it to chat with friends into an IT-sanctioned collaboration tool. That's good news for business managers who recognize the value real-time messaging can bring to their organizations. But it also puts the onus on IT to start taking IM seriously.Instant messaging (IM) is transforming from a rogue technology, brought into the enterprise by employees who want to use it to chat with friends, family and co-workers, into an IT-sanctioned collaboration tool. That's good news for business managers who recognize the value real-time messaging can bring to their organizations. But it also puts the onus on IT to start taking IM seriously ? as seriously as email.

According to Nemertes? recent report, ?Getting a Grip on Collaboration,? almost 90 percent of companies use IM in the enterprise, and half the IT executives we spoke with rate IM as ?vital? or ?very important?.

IM is popular because users can get it free from consumer service providers (e.g., AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo), and it requires no intervention or approval on the part of IT or business managers. For those very reasons, consumer IM services are in use at more than two-thirds of the companies with whom we spoke.

IM is also a technology with which many employees are familiar'they, and their children, have been using it at home for months or even years. And IM is viral?it almost requires that as more people use it, they bring others into the fold (if two members of a department IM each other, it won't be long before everyone wants in).

IM?Time Saver Or Time Waster?

Most of the 40 IT execs we spoke with see the value of IM, and they are taking steps to bring this increasingly important collaboration tool under IT's control. Those who value IM emphasize its real-time benefits. Some told us their sales people use IM on client calls to back-channel with coworkers, either to discuss the call itself with their fellow sales people (?Hey Bob, this is a good place to tell him about our new product feature?), or to get product information on the spot from other employees without involving them directly.

Others described project team members using IM to get immediate answers when they need them, which speeds up project completion. And some executives use IM among themselves or with their direct reports, to keep each other up to date on the latest company, market and competitive information.

Execs who rated IM ?unimportant? or ?moderately important? are still wary of the technology: They?re worried about its security, and they aren't sure if it is more of a productivity drain than a boon.

For example, several expressed concern that employees spend too much time messaging friends and family. ?What if my employees have five or 10 different sessions running, like my teenage daughter?? asked the director of technology at a retail services firm. ?I don't want that in the workplace. It's more appropriate to completely restrict it.?

IM for Eyeballs: Why There Is No Interoperability

One of the biggest challenges facing instant messaging today is the fact that competing software products don't talk to each other. It's impossible for an AIM user to IM someone on MSN or Yahoo without the help of a third-party application?and even those apps don't offer integration so much as buddy-list and window management capabilities. Users still must subscribe to every IM service they want to use.

The same is true for enterprise-class systems: Although many integrate with other collaboration applications, such as Web conferencing software, none integrate with other IM clients.

The issue is top-of-mind for the IT execs we spoke to, more than 50 percent of whom rate IM interoperability as ?vital? or ?very important.? Said the executive in charge of innovation at a major financial services company: ?We have lots of partners?I don't want to have multiple clients for all my customers. That makes no sense.?

Partly, this is a standards issue, but it's also a business decision on the part of the IM vendors, who fear for their very existence if real standards are adopted and interoperability is achieved.

Proprietary Preservation

Consumer IM vendors are essentially in the advertising business. They deliver free software IM for Eyeballs: Why There Is No Interoperability to their customers, and eyeballs to their advertisers. Consumer IM is a numbers game: The vendors make their money by selling ad space in the IM clients that appear on users? PCs. And obviously, when it comes to advertising, the more eyeballs you have, the more you can charge for space.

By remaining proprietary, the IM vendors ensure that users will have to continue subscribing if they want to maintain contact with their buddies who also are on that service. Once interoperability exists, IM users can choose one IM client?and there go all those eyeballs on all the others.

There may be some wiggle room here. Yahoo, for instance, says it's open to full standards compliance, and Microsoft's dominance might actually gain momentum from interoperability. But until AOL, the leading consumer IM vendor, gets on board, the three main competitors won't work together.

Meanwhile, enterprise-class IM vendors risk extinction when Windows Messenger offers the security and management features IT managers are looking for, since Microsoft's client software is free?although the server isn't? and will eventually be integrated with other Office products. Most companies use Outlook/ Exchange for email, and there's no reason to think Windows Messenger and Live Communications Server will not follow suit. That lost work time is hard to measure, but almost certainly exists; the question is whether it exists in greater measure with IM than it does with email or the telephone.

Despite these concerns, Nemertes analysts predict that instant messaging will become pervasive (i.e. used daily by all knowledge workers) within the majority of enterprises by mid- to late-2004, although some conservative or especially security- conscious companies will ban its use for longer than that, just as some banned the use of email years after it became a pervasive technology.

Bringing IM Into The IT Fold

Our research shows that in most enterprises, IM adoption follows a typical path:

  1. Employees start using free consumer services on their own.

  2. IT departments soon realize that IM traffic on their networks is large enough to warrant consideration.

  3. IT takes steps to manage IM traffic and standardizes on one or more IM clients and systems

Once IT decides to control instant messaging, it has several options. Users can be allowed to choose IM services as they see fit, as long as they follow written policies and procedures for security and archiving. Or IT can use third-party software (with the consumer clients) for security, archiving and management. Or an enterprise-class system can be implemented; most of these systems come with built-in security and archiving capabilities.

?I worry about the security risks about everything,? one CIO at a technology company told us. But he trusts his users enough to give them guidelines and policies around instant messaging, without restricting its use. ?We have our employee handbook that states the rules of conduct,? he said. ?We embellish that with policies and procedures about use, and we have a good community. Not a lot of rowdies. So I?ve taken more of a laissezfaire attitude. We don't exchange top-secret information using IM.?

Despite this CIO's confidence, we don't recommend his approach. Consumer IM services just aren't secure enough to satisfy most enterprises. This issue is increasingly important in the face of new privacy regulations, such as HIPAA and Gramm-Leach-Bliley.

There are other downsides to the consumer IM services as well. They don't preserve IM threads, making it difficult to keep records of them. This was perceived as especially dangerous by some of the IT execs we spoke with?particularly those from financial services firms and other companies mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley to keep records of all transactions. Of course, all kinds of business are hindered when employees don't have complete records of pertinent interactions.

Another drawback to consumer IM services is that they typically don't let users set administrative controls, such as limiting who can see whom on a network, or who, if anyone, is allowed to send attachments.

Like public Internet-based email, consumer IM is vulnerable to viruses and worms, and it lets users send files outside the corporate walls. Like email, IM should be secured. ?We?d rather be secure than collaborate,? said one IT manager.

With all those arguments against using consumer IM services inside enterprises, we believe the best approach is to standardize on robust, enterprise-class IM.

Enterprise-Class Options

At this point, companies have two choices: Add a third-party solution to the consumer IM services already in use, or standardize on an enterpriseclass IM system. Examples of the latter include products from Bantu, IBM Lotus, Vayusphere and WiredRed, as well as the enterprise-class products from consumer IM powerhouses AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Among the IT execs Nemertes spoke with, 37 percent already have standardized on an enterprise- class system, and another 20 percent plan to do so in the next six months.

AOL has the largest consumer IM market share, but IBM Lotus, Yahoo and Microsoft are getting more traction with enterprise customers. Among the companies we spoke with that have implemented enterprise-class systems, almost 20 percent have implemented Lotus Instant Messenger, while just over 10 percent are on Yahoo! Business Messenger or Microsoft's Windows Messenger. No one we spoke with is using AOL for enterprise IM.

The companies using Lotus Instant Messenger typically also use other Lotus products, especially Notes. Indeed, none of the companies we spoke with use Lotus IM without using at least one other collaboration product from Lotus.

Yahoo! Business Messenger is a hosted and managed service built on Yahoo's IM network, delivering carrier-grade reliability, scalability and security.

Microsoft's Windows Messenger is one of four IM products Microsoft currently supports, the others being its public MSN Messenger service, the Exchange 2000 IM server and the recently released Office Live Communications Server.

Smaller vendors, including IM veteran Wired- Red, and relative newcomer Vayusphere, also are in the hunt for enterprise clients. Despite good technology from these and other smaller vendors, they are likely to have a tough time staying alive as the market matures over the next three to five years. IT managers need to consider this as they standardize on a product today.

Instead, the battle for enterprise IM is likely to be between IBM Lotus and Microsoft. Although Microsoft is a bit late to the IM party with its recently released Office Live Communications Server, it has its desktop dominance to build upon. Nemertes analysts also believe that Yahoo! Business Messenger, which is gaining traction among the companies we spoke with, has an opportunity to grab significant market share, especially among financial services firms.

Third-Party Message-Management Apps

The obvious problem with enterprise products is that they don't work with other IM systems, including consumer services (see ?IM For Eyeballs: Why There Is No Interoperability.?)

That's not an insignificant issue?if employees can't communicate with their friends, family and customers on the enterprise IM system, they?ll probably continue to use a consumer application as well, defeating the purpose of standardizing on a single system. Indeed, among the 37 percent of companies we spoke with that have standardized, 30 percent continue to allow employees to use consumer services.

To address this issue, third-party products from several vendors, including Akonix, Cordiant, e- Vantage Solutions, FaceTime, IM Logic and NetIQ?add interoperability, manageability and security to consumer IM services. Our discussions with IT execs did not find significant penetration of these products, although some said they planned to evaluate them.

FaceTime, for instance, gets around the interoperability issue by applying a consistent set of business policies to all of a given user's buddy names and networks, and mapping that person's legitimate corporate ID on all the IM networks he or she uses. The IM systems remain independent, but they operate as though they?re one, which enables IT managers track and manage usage, while allowing users to message people on a variety of clients. In addition, FaceTime, like IM Logic and others, is partnering with Microsoft to support its Live Communications Server 2003.

Financial companies present special security and management requirements for IM, as they must comply with government record-keeping regulations. IM archives can be kept separately or integrated with email archives. To ease these integration efforts, start-up records management vendor Iron Mountain Inc. recently teamed with four IM management vendors (Akonix, Communicator, FaceTime and IM Logic).

Presence And IM

For some companies, the goal is to embed presence throughout the organization and its applications. We found 21 percent doing this now, and another 26 percent planning to do so in two years.

Most are one to three years away from actually doing that, however. ?I think it needs to be a part of everything we do, so you always know what someone's availability is and how to reach them?it's key to a successful environment,? said one communications director. But, he added, that's a year or two in the future for his company.

Others worry that presence, when used enterprise- wide, will create more issues than it solves. ?It's intriguing, but I have concerns about the problems that could result,? said another IT exec in charge of collaboration at his company.

One such problem could be ?people getting deluged with instant requests. Sometimes people need time to formulate a reasonable response,? he continued. ?Right now I don't think that's a problem, and [presence] will help us reduce emails and such. But down the road, I worry.?

When implementing presence, companies need to seriously consider the controls they place on users? access. For instance, if a company is simply using IM as a standalone application, it may make sense to place restrictions on who can message the CEO, as well as others in the organization. But if the company is integrating presence with email and with other collaborative and enterprise apps, such restrictions may be less useful, or at least less conducive to open-door management policies.

Beyond Presence To Collaboration

Looking toward this more integrated future, a number of vendors offer development tools for building presence into enterprise apps, separate from IM. Microsoft, for instance, plans such capabilities for its Live Communications Server.

Another example, Advanced Reality's Presence- AR, is a Java-based program that runs on the Java Virtual Machine and delivers a development platform that lets programmers make any application collaborative.

PushMessenger Corporate Edition, a new product released in October 2003, can handle simultaneous multi-device/multi-session presence services, letting users communicate via several PCs, PDAs or mobile phones at once. It is integrated with Alcatel's OmniPCX Enterprise Communication Center, an IP-based platform that informs users of the presence and availability of contacts, no matter what devices they?re using.

Traditional networking vendors, including Nortel and Siemens, also have developed software to augment their IP-based voice and data products with presence and conferencing for total communications convergence. We believe Siemens? approach?leveraging presence across all communications channels, and partnering with Microsoft, WebEx and others?makes more sense than Nortel's attempt (thus far) to go it alone. Nortel may have a tough time selling IT managers on its ability to develop collaboration applications that can compete with those of the leading applications vendors in the space.


Collaboration technology will continue to spread; it's just a matter of time before these technologies become pervasive within most organizations. Rather than ignoring the problem and paying for that decision later, IT executives should begin planning their strategy today, then implement it in the next 12 months.

Melanie Turek is principal research analyst and senior partner at Nemertes Research LLC, which provides in-depth analysis of the business value of emerging technologies. Nemertes? report, ?Getting a Grip on Collaboration,? is available now.

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights