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Get off the list, Buddy

Success for AOL’s Instant Messaging service has slowed IM’s adoption for businesses. Enterprise Pursuits 06/17/01 Nelson King Get off the list, Buddy Success for AOL’s Instant Messaging service has slowed IM’s adoption for businesses.

How many folks in enterprise IT still think IM means “intramural”? In these days of rampantly spawning acronyms I suppose there’s room for unfamiliarity, but the naïveté might be damaging (corporate fortunes, careers–things like that). You never know when the next acronym that comes around the horn will be the one that makes a billion bucks for a company, or something like that.

In this case we’re talking IM as Instant Messaging. In my experience, instant messaging is something people either know well, or don’t know at all. This is another way of saying they use IM or they don’t. There’s a correlation here for IM use within the enterprise. If IT people use IM themselves, they generally find ways to use it within the corporation. If they don’t use it, the corporation may be clueless.

Does this matter? Maybe. Some gurus of the research mills have earmarked instant messaging as a nascent tool of the enterprise. (Translation: They think businesses can use IM.) Some even go so far as to say it can give a company a competitive advantage. (Don’t they say that about just about everything connected with the Internet?) I’m not tipping my hand as a skeptic, but IM isn’t sliced bread.

I find that IT managers don’t get too excited conceptually about people typing messages back and forth (in real time). Their excitement is dampened by several factors. What about people who don’t type well? E-mail is one thing–in e-mail, typing skills are helpful, but composing an e-mail message is only loosely constrained by time. Instant messaging is unlike e-mail in this respect and more like real-time chat, where fast typists tend to dominate the conversation. Similarly in IM, the disparity in typing speeds between two instant messengers can unduly slant the communication.

However, the fact that up to half of a company’s employees might be using IM has not gone unnoticed by IT managers. The good news is that training and acceptance may not be a problem for IM-based applications. It’s estimated that more than 10 million people use IM, many of them regularly. That includes the single largest source of users, AOL. About 6 million people use AOL’s IM version–AIM. But the bad news is that the popularity of AIM may partly explain IM’s lack of visibility in corporate IT. Many IT pros have a negative gut reaction to AOL (in any form). That reaction has in no way been ameliorated by AOL’s activity in the business arena, or lack thereof.

On AOL, a “buddy list” shows which friends are online and presumably available for messages. That’s about the limit of the buddy list functionality. But it doesn’t have to be. There are several ways to use the buddy list concept for business. For example, the communication could trigger a phone call or some kind of automated process. IM can provide a convenient way to monitor who is online, which is sometimes called “presence” technology. All kinds of applications–conferencing, trading, auction, finance, help desk–could be built around the use of a “who’s available” list. None of these work easily, however, with the buddy list. AOL holds AIM very close to the vest for its own competitive reasons. AIM does not participate in evolving open standards, and doesn’t pay much attention to security or access control. These features are desirable, if not essential, to business use of IM.

This fact has not been missed by AOL’s competitors, chief among them Microsoft. With its new Hailstorm technology, Microsoft is aiming directly for business use of IM. It’s also emphasizing the ability of developers to modify the IM client–for example, by installing notification of stock changes or news developments. Of course, selling to developers is what Microsoft does supremely well. AOL is a consumer company.

The rub for enterprise IT is that while most of the potential users of an enhanced IM system are AOL people, AOL is not where you turn to do the enhancement. There go IM’s benefits to IT–principally familiarity and frequent use. But there appears to be some recognition of the business benefits on AOL’s part. AOL as corporate parent is going to provide more sophisticated IM through its subsidiary Netscape. Netscape is constructing NetBusiness, a bundle of Web-site features that include IM and a buddy list. That’s good, but the issue remains–6 million AOL people use AIM, not some other system.

It’s my feeling that if there weren’t so many millions of users of IM, and especially the well-identified AOL users, there wouldn’t be nearly so much general interest in IM. That means the split in approaches–a very fundamental split along consumer and business lines–is very damaging to the cause of IM. IM is just another means of using Internet-based communications that include e-mail, push technology, and FTP. To stand out in this crowd, IM needs creative applications. Applications need users. The users are divided. You get the picture.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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