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Titans of IM duke it out for enterprise supremacy

The "Big Three" instant messaging vendors are getting warmed up for a fierce competition to make their software best in class, as IM becomes transformed into a mainstream business application. Analysts and other experts outline the strengths and weaknesses of enterprise IM offerings from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Recognizing how popular their free instant messaging clients have been with business users, America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. are rolling out enterprise-class versions of their software in a move that experts say will give IM new legitimacy as a business tool.

While there are plenty of business-oriented instant messaging systems on the market, such as Sametime from IBM's Lotus division, in many businesses, employees have been downloading free clients and using those for both business and personal communication. The free clients have been popular because they allow people to communicate with customers outside of the corporation.

But they also present plenty of problems for businesses. Charles Golvin, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based IT research firm Forrester Research, said that businesses need to be able to manage instant messaging in much the same way that they manage e-mail. And, until now, that has proved problematic with the popular free services from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Golvin said businesses need to be able to create naming conventions for instant messaging. That way, people know whether a user on their list represents a business. And it also means they don't have to puzzle through nonsensical buddy names to determine to whom they are messaging. Golvin's other recommendations are for businesses to make a practice of logging IM communications and to secure them through technologies such as encryption.

Today, there are numerous companies providing these kinds of solutions, but now that the biggest names in instant messaging are planning to offer these services, businesses may see instant messaging as more legitimate, and they may be more willing to adopt IM, said Robert Mahowald, research manager with the Framingham, Mass., research firm International Data Corp.

All three providers are struggling with the same issues and offer much of the same functionality, but there are also differences in their approach.

AOL jumps in first

AOL, a division of New York-based AOL Time Warner Inc., has been the first to market with its business-class IM product, Enterprise AIM Services, which launched in November. AOL uses a gateway that a business installs behind its firewall, or it will host the service on a subscription basis. That enables businesses to log IM communication and set up naming conventions. The user's identity can then be tied back to the corporate directory. That fixes many of the problems with internal IM communications, said Bruce Stewart, senior vice president of AOL's strategic business solutions.

AOL's business customers can also connect with users of the free client. In an effort to secure these communications, AOL has also partnered with Mountain View, Calif.-based VeriSign Inc. to allow users to have certificate-based security in their external IM conversations. AOL's product hits all of the important marks for a business-class IM service, Mahowald said.

Microsoft's two-pronged approach

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has two business-oriented IM products. One that is currently available is called MSN Messenger Connect; another is expected to be released soon. Messenger Connect has much of the same functionality as AOL's product for internal use. For this product, Microsoft has partnered with IMlogic Inc, a Boston-based provider of instant messaging management tools. Yahoo uses IMlogic's gateway to provide many of the management features. The product also allows users to communicate with others on Microsoft's free IM client, enabling users to have the freedom to communicate with users outside the corporate firewall, said Larry Grothaus, lead product manager for MSN.

But Mahowald said this product is just a bridge for Microsoft that allows it to compete with AOL until its more robust IM product hits the market.

At the end of April, Microsoft plans to release a product it has code-named Greenwich. It will ship with Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 and will provide a platform on which companies can add their own presence-based applications.

Yahoo ready for a release

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Yahoo's product is due out later this quarter. It provides similar logging and naming capabilities. Yahoo has also partnered with IMlogic for these management and security functions.

While each of these enterprise systems allows communication with users on their companion free systems, none is interoperable with its rivals. Microsoft bases its system on the session initiation protocol (SIP) standard. Mahowald said that SIP is the most likely candidate for a standard in IM, but interoperability is likely to remain a sticking point.

These companies are serious about moving into the enterprise market because it is a way for them to begin earning revenue from a previously free product, Mahowald said. Though Microsoft may have an advantage in the enterprise market since it is far more entrenched in businesses than either AOL or Yahoo, its dominance is not guaranteed, he said.

Mahowald said AOL has a solid product and has made some good strategic partnerships, and Yahoo has been getting its feet wet in the enterprise market for some time. But, he said, Yahoo has the furthest to go of the Big Three to reach the top of the enterprise market.

Presence, the basic feature of IM that appeals most to the corporate market, is likely to become a part of more business applications, according to those who follow the industry. All of these big IM vendors said they see IM moving beyond simple messaging in the future to become part of CRM applications, call center applications and more.


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