After years as the teenage crowdís means of staying connected, instant messaging (IM) has become a preferred medium for business communication. In a nutshell, IM developed as a type of e-mail that allows the sender to know if the receiver is online, thus encouraging immediate response.
So, for example, if youíre in New York waiting to make a presentation to a client and need some data from the office, you IM the research staff. If anyone on staff is there, youíll get a quick answer. Instant messaging is more efficient than e-mail, because with e-mail you never know when the recipients will check their messages.
International Data Corp. estimates that more than 20 million people worldwide now use IM in business. By 2005, IM business users will reach 300 million, according to the Massachusetts-based research firm.
"Any group that needs to have communication with each other, including people in multiple locations or different time zones, can benefit from instant messaging," says Gary Reifman, spokesman for Communicator Inc., a New York software company that provides, among other things, enterprise-level secure electronic communications.
Instant Messaging is built on client-server software. Client software, downloaded from the Internet or installed by disk, resides on the userís computer and is used to connect to the IM server. When the user logs on, the client software sends the IM server information identifying the userís Internet connection address and the names of everyone on the userís contact list.
The server creates a temporary file with this information and then checks to see if anyone on the userís contact list is online. If any of those contacts are online, the IM server informs the userís computer and their names appear in a box on the userís screen. To send an IM, the user clicks on the contactís name and a message window opens on the userís screen. The user then types in the message and clicks "send." A similar window opens on the contactís computer screen, allowing the contact person to respond instantly.
At first, IM was used to send "Are you available to talk?" messages, but businesses now find IM a useful tool for real-time emergencies and conferencing. For instance, IM can be used to create a "chat room" for multiple users to discuss an upcoming project, or it can be used to transfer large files, thereby enabling IM users to work simultaneously on a document.
Emerging instant message technology includes IM video conferencing and instant language translations that would allow, say, an English-speaker to communicate with a Portuguese-speaker. Eventually, IM technology will be embedded a range of business software. An office manager, for example, could get instant approval of purchase orders from the accounting department.
Two of the most widely used enterprise-level IM software packages are IBMís Lotus Sametime and Microsoft Exchange. Some businesses opt for free consumer IM services such as America Onlineís AIM, Yahoo Messenger, and ICQ. Free IM services, however, lack the security and encryption features businesses require for confidential financial and marketing information.
But with consumers ahead of businesses on the IM usage curve, a number of companies have developed security add-ons that allow businesses to take advantage of free IM services. IM-Age Software in Texas recently launched IM-Age for Desktops, an encryption tool that works with both consumer and enterprise IM software. Another option is to buy business communication software that includes instant messaging. Communicator Inc.ís Communicator HUB IM offers standard IM features as well as identity management features to ensure that you know who is sending you IMs.
Vericept Corp. in Colorado offers an additional layer of IM security with a monitoring technology that analyzes IM messages. The monitoring system is designed to detect inappropriate use of instant messaging. In one case, a company discovered a disgruntled employee looking for ways to hack into the corporate computer.
"Unless a company is going to totally lock down its computers, the only way to know if the network is being misused is to monitor it," says Michael Reagan, Vericept senior vice-president. And with business IM set to grow, more people will have the capability to misuse your system Ė instantly.
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