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Instant messaging and the security pro

Enterprise packages balance security, comm concerns

By John Dickinson
October 2, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Depending on your point of view, instant messaging (IM) is either the communications tool that saved your company or your career, or the bane of your existence. Users who depend on IM for communicating key business information with associates, business partners and personal contacts generally take the first position. The second is taken by those who worry about company security, compliance, and business productivity.

But whichever point of view you take, you have to agree that instant messaging is a big deal. According to a 2005 Radicati Group study, last year’s IM traffic averaged 13.9 billion instant messages per day, and that’s a big number. IM has a storied history in the business world that is not unlike that of personal computers, which more or less snuck up on IT departments when employees brought them into their business processes without first getting them sanctioned by their companies’ computing authorities.

IM has come into businesses in a similar way, this time using free public networks including AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN’s Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and, more recently Google Messenger. During the past few years IM clients have popped up on nearly every enterprise desktop and users have been busily messaging each other about everything from how to succeed with a recalcitrant client to where little Jimmy was going after school that day.

Instant messaging is unique among computer-based messaging systems because it is not based on the sort of store-and-forward message handling mechanism used by e-mail. Rather, it operates in real time by sending a text message immediately to the intended recipient, sort of like a telephone conversation that is text-based rather than voice-based. That’s an advantage in today’s business environment which demands quick responses and fast action.

One big advantage of IM over telephone conversations is that IM uses presence technology to detect whether someone is available for a conversation, and to inform users of their status. No time is wasted on trying to communicate with people who aren’t there. Further advantages over e-mail include the fact that IM is simpler to use, especially for short messages. And, according to Radicati analysts, those short messages are seen as more efficient than telephone conversations because less time is wasted on chit-chat, even in personal IM conversations.

These are all things users mention when they tell you why they prefer IM over e-mail or even telephone conversations. And many managers will tell you that they prefer IM over face-to-face meetings because the message exchanges are more time-efficient and cost less than the travel and entertainment expense that is often associated with those meetings. In general, users and managers alike have come to recognize instant messaging as a key collaboration tool that is important to operating their businesses, and that can provide personal services at the same time.

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