Enterprise Instant Messaging Takes Center Stage At Conference

Vendors of all sizes are jockeying for position as businesses weigh key issues to make IM productive at work.
Companies of all sizes, from Microsoft to tiny Cobra Technologies Inc., laid out plans and unveiled products for the enterprise instant-messaging market at this week's Instant Messaging Planet conference in Boston.

Microsoft reiterated plans to roll out its MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises service this quarter and said again that it would launch its real-time communications-collaboration platform, code-named Greenwich, two to three months after Windows Server 2003 ships in April.

Yahoo Inc. executives said their company's Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition is on track for release this quarter. And Sun Microsystems said it would launch its standalone Sun One Instant Messaging Server in April, separating it from the Sun One Portal Server.

Interoperability, a traditional IM bugaboo, was a prominent part of discussions at IM Planet. But both Michael Gartenberg, research director for Jupiter Research and a moderator on several panels at the conference, and Michael Sampson, an analyst at Ferris Research, a firm that tracks collaboration technologies, trends, and tactics, see deeper issues that companies must address before IM becomes productive.

"What's the business case for using IM?" Sampson asked. "That's what businesses have to explore. It may be easy to deploy IM in the enterprise, but companies need to come up with appropriate controls to make sure that it's used for quality work, not just messaging co-workers about lunch plans."

"Companies have to gain some measure of control," Gartenberg said. "IM has to be used in a controlled manner by establishing cultural rules that are acceptable in the enterprise."

Whether that's logging IM conversations not logged now or letting employees know that IM isn't a replacement for water-cooler chatting, such boundaries are an important issue for businesses, he said.

Although Ferris Research estimates that IM use in the enterprise will balloon from a mere 10 million in mid-2002 to 180 million by 2007, Sampson is convinced that IM will be a success in the office only if it's tightly integrated with E-mail and provided by the same vendor a company relies on for its messaging platform.

"I'm skeptical about the abilities of a Yahoo to break into the large corporate market," he said, but noted that providers such as Yahoo, which don't play in the enterprise messaging area, may have some success among smaller businesses.

Gartenberg disagreed, saying there are two ways to look at how vendors are perceived by companies. "Does a company go with a Yahoo, which has some experience in the enterprise but is very deep in IM technology, or with someone like Sun, which may have more business credibility but less expertise in IM?" he asked.

In some cases, Gartenberg added, companies would be well advised to look into how IM is being used by employees, even if it's not explicitly supported by IT. "Unlike other forms of business communication," he said, "IM came from the bottom up."

For example, if employees have already made Yahoo Messenger the de facto standard in the company, Gartenberg said, IT might not be so quick to introduce another platform.

The reason, he said, is that IM isn't like E-mail, in that one platform can be swapped for another because all recognize the same standards. "IM remains fairly closed and proprietary. You don't want to go through a swap of IM technologies more than once."

Smaller IM vendors were also represented at the conference, and several revealed new products. Cobra Technologies showcased its Bots for Lotus Sametime. The new Journal Bot queries and updates Lotus Domino journals, and RDBMS support is being added to its Lookup Bot. This bot lets users query company relational databases from the Sametime IM client.

Natural Messaging Inc. used the conference to reveal its move into enterprise IM with its XML-based technology that lets users of the Sametime client access data within business applications.

"From what I've seen, there haven't been a lot of new announcements" at the conference, Sampson said. "But we're still in the early days of enterprise IM. You don't do business today without E-mail, and in five to 10 years, you won't be able to do business without instant messaging."