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Microsoft And Yahoo Get Instant Messaging Ready To Carry Heavier Freight

Microsoft and Yahoo's upgraded IM apps include calling, video, and easier file sharing. It could make them even more tempting for business use.

Microsoft and Yahoo are beefing up their instant-messaging applications to give people more choice in how they talk to each other, whether it's using text, voice, or other plug-in applications. IM's already made itself at home in many workplaces, and these new forms of IM could make them all the more tempting, creating yet another security headache for IT managers.

Microsoft's latest version of Windows Live Messenger, available starting this week, comes with a new feature called Verizon Web Calling that lets users place local, long-distance, and international calls from their computers to almost any phone, including cell phones. Users can make the call by clicking an entry within their contact list or by typing a phone number into the Windows Live Call online dial pad. But calling's not free. Customers need to sign up for Verizon Web Calling through the Windows Live Messenger Program, and buy calling time from Verizon in $5, $10, or $15 bunches to use with the service.

Windows Live Messenger also includes video calling and an application for sharing folders. For example, users can drag and drop files and photos into the application from their desktops. With the video calling app, users can view and talk to others on their PCs in full-screen video. MSN Messenger and Windows Live Messenger have more than 20 million video conversation users each month, says Microsoft.

Yahoo's beta version of its real-time communications suite, introduced Tuesday, also includes more sophisticated features than traditional IM apps. It comes with plug-ins, which are free mini applications that can be added to Yahoo Messenger for a more personalized IM experience. The plug-ins include ties to several popular consumer Internet services include, eBay, and Yahoo Calendar.

Yahoo also opened up its Application Program Interfaces to encourage third-party developers to build plug-ins for its IM application. It's the first time Yahoo is opening up its platform to spark innovation, the company says.

With more people using the Internet to make phone calls, America Online, Microsoft's MSN division, and Yahoo are trying to get a share of the VoIP market. All three now are armed with VoIP services and capabilities that they've added to their popular IM software. This week's steps by Yahoo and Microsoft take it a step further by adding new Web services on their platforms.

Consumers will be the first to embrace these new IM applications. But businesses could be next, with IM already being used by stock brokers, lawyers, and other professionals who demand fast-paced communication. Indiana University currently has a small group of employees, such as its support center, using IM from America Online, MSN, and Yahoo. "But our minds are opening quickly, and we're looking at some of the new options out there," says Sue Workman, the university's director of user support, citing possible future uses of IM clients to provide instantaneous IT support. "It's the next way to communicate more and faster, in business and in life. Our students and children found this out a couple of years ago, and now we're catching up to use it in business and higher education," she says.

But IM could present serious security risks if employees aren't properly trained to use it in the workplace. Some companies educates employees about what types of information can be transmitted instead of monitoring IM traffic, while others go as far as locking down their IM systems behind a firewall. Workman agrees that IM can be a security risk and says the demand for better authenticated IM applications with bundled VoIP services is growing. But there's no use in blocking IM because it will eventually creep onto employee computers. "I don't think there's any [way of] stopping it, so we need to look at utilizing this technology in a secure fashion," Workman says.

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