The Instant Messaging Debate

Instant messaging (IM) conjures up images of bored teenagers using a software-based gossiping tool. Most IM programs are free, and few competing products can talk to one another, making skeptics wonder how useful IM is in the enterprise.

But some business users, especially remote workers parked in front of desks all day and eager for contact with colleagues, have become avid users of IM as a way of quickly swapping messages and information.

The jury is still out on whether IM increases workplace productivity. But even people who believe that IM isn't an ideal business technology, with its rapid-fire text messages, acknowledge that there are problems with the alternatives. E-mail and voice mail pile up, and a recent report found that more than 60% of business phone calls never reach their intended recipients. Such deficiencies may help explain the growing number of IM users: According to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., 42% of business Internet users use IM in the workplace, even though 70% of IT departments don't support it.

While many executives aren't convinced of its worth to the enterprise, "the tens of millions of people using IM through the Web must be getting some benefit," says Dana Gardner, research director for messaging and collaboration services at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

Organizations like the U.S. Navy, which uses Lotus Software Group's Sametime for secure, almost instantaneous ship-to-ship and submarine- to-shore communications, say IM makes life easier. The Navy values having written transcripts of all orders and communiques, which is possible using Sametime.


42% of business Internet users use IM in the workplace, even though 70% of those users report that their IT departments don't support it.

Lou Latham, analyst, Gartner Inc.


Other early adopters concur that IM is a low-cost tool that helps their employees communicate more effectively. But on the other side of the debate are businesses like a West Coast insurance company that opted not to roll out corporate IM software, because its claims agents were always on the go and didn't find it useful.

Functionally speaking, almost every IM program is identical—users have a list of other people's IM handles, and they click on a name to initiate a chat session. Then the two or more people write text messages that are delivered almost instantly and persist in a window on one another's machines. Sametime, which costs a few thousand dollars for a couple hundred seats, adds myriad features, such as the ability for one user to see what's on another user's screen (if permission is granted) or even to remotely manipulate another user's computer. A few hundred Sametime users can be hosted off just one dedicated Pentium PC or an AS/400.

Corporate IM software includes features and functionality that are missing from the free versions. For instance, Sametime has high-level encryption and features such as a whiteboard that's viewable by all participants. It also allows other participants to watch what someone is doing on his computer screen. In many cases, corporate IM software can alleviate the need for face-to-face meetings or at least make collaboration among dispersed groups much easier. And IM systems administered in-house can be a start to a corporatewide rollout of IM and presence information, according to Gardner.

"I think it will become a critical corporate tool, but not for obvious reasons. IM has a strategic benefit that might escape people just looking at it as a chat tool," Gardner says. "That is, you can take advantage of the presence detection that is incumbent with IM and broaden that presence to be a rich profile of how people should be communicated with best."

One major impediment to IM gaining wide corporate adoption, especially for large supply chain and business-to-business applications, is the lack of a single IM standard. The problem is political, not technical: free IM software makers earn money from advertising that runs across the top of their IM windows, and Dulles, Va.-based market leader America Online Inc. has been reluctant to let any other free software communicate with its AOL Instant Messenger, even when faced with government pressure to do so.


IM Use

In companies where IM use is approved, what program do employees use?

Lotus Sametime 27%
AOL Instant Messenger 26%
Yahoo Messenger 15%
Other 32%

Source: survey of 185 businesses, July 2001, Osterman Research Inc., Black Diamond, Wash.

And so, free software—such as Instant Messenger, which alone claims more than 60 million users; ICQ, another AOL IM service; Internet Relay Chat; Yahoo Inc.'s Messenger; and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger—can't talk to one another, and neither can corporate (meaning not free) IM software, though Sametime does work with Instant Messenger. Nevertheless, IDC in Framingham, Mass., predicts that worldwide, corporate IM use will shoot up from 5.5 million users in 2000 to 180 million users in 2004.

For corporate use, having a closed IM system may be a boon. For instance, law firm Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa, uses Lotus Sametime 2.5, which keeps all IM communications encrypted, with one PC acting as a dedicated server.

"It's really got security," says senior partner and attorney David Beckman.

Beckman says he was initially cool to the idea of using IM in the workplace. "My feeling about IM after watching my teenagers use it was that it was the curse of society, that it should be banned not only from the workplace but everyplace else you can think of," he says. "Now I've done a 180-degree turn."

Sametime lets the law firm's remote workers maintain efficiency. For instance, they can collaborate remotely when writing documents, because the program lets users view what's on one another's PC screens.

"It improves productivity," says Beckman, because it lets him communicate with more than one person at a time. In addition, IM makes telecommuting seamless, he says. For instance, one of his paralegals telecommutes four days per week. "Most days, I don't know she's gone, because I [message] her when she's here and when she's a hundred miles away," he says.

Tool Versatility

Though IM software is relatively simple, research conducted by Steve Whittaker, a senior research scientist at AT&T Labs-Research in Florham Park, N.J., found that as a tool, IM is highly effective at mimicking the complexities of actual conversations.

"One of the points we discovered is that what is apparently idle chitchat one minute can be work the next and vice versa. IM seems to be most supportive of any technology of the social processes, but that doesn't mean it doesn't support work as well," says Whittaker.

Employees at Newton, Mass.-based systems integration company Nervewire Inc. are increasingly using AOL's Instant Messenger as a primary means of communication.

"We actually encourage it and made it explicit by compiling the list [of user names] and sending it out to everyone so they can just load it in [Instant Messenger]," says Kipp Lynch, director of user experience and manager of the user interface group.

Almost the entire company uses the program, though it was never agreed upon per se as a standard. With the company spread over three floors of a building, Lynch says, it's great for quick questions.

"I used it a lot more when I was doing work in Finland recently. It was nice to have some quick contact with the people you're used to seeing every day," says Lynch, adding that Instant Messenger made it easy to check in with the employees he manages and be available to answer questions.

But IM can create awkward moments. For example, Instant Messenger doesn't automatically deactivate when a laptop it's on is plugged into an LCD projector. During a recent Nervewire meeting, Lynch says, a co-worker's childhood nickname was revealed during a presentation when an IM message from an old friend popped up that read, "Hey hey, Bobbadoo!"

Nervewire hasn't settled on any single IM program and may switch off of Instant Messenger in the future, Lynch says. "But instant messaging is a function that we want to keep," he adds.

The 6th Judicial Circuit Court in Florida in the counties of Pasco and Pinellas has been using QuickConference, a secure IM program for internal use only, for more than seven years. According to Jim Weaver, senior court systems analyst for the 6th Circuit, when he ran a trial of IM software, it proved to be a simple and inexpensive way for courtroombound judges to keep in touch with their judicial assistants, who might be down the hall or in a building in the next county.

"If there's anything the judge needs to know while the trial is going on—jury instructions, trial information—he can communicate with his [judicial assistant] or a clerk from any computer," says Weaver, who runs QuickConference on two 256-MHz Pentium 800 workstations for redundancy for his 250 users. Pricing is about $800 for 100 user licenses; every user license is also a server license, and the software works on both Macintosh and Windows computers.

On the user's PC, QuickConference is a simple program with features similar to those of most other IM programs. A window shows which users are logged on. Clicking on a user or a group starts an IM session, and a new messaging window appears on-screen. Users can send a message to one person or to a whole group.

The informal aspects of IM can come in handy in the courthouse. For example, judges and clerks are legally required to keep a copy of all their e-mails, but not their instant messages. "So if it's something real quick and little . . . like 'You want to go to lunch?' where it's not work-related, they may want to use QuickConference," says Weaver.

Schwartz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass. Contact him at

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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