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Experts see IM as foundation for new-age apps

Experts at the Instant Messaging Planet Conference & Expo said that, in the absence of an IM strategy, "stealth" IM use could have dangerous consequences in the enterprise.

BOSTON -- IT managers may think instant messaging clients are merely a convenient way for employees to chitchat with family and friends during the workday, but industry luminaries see IM technology as the foundation for a new generation of collaborative applications.

During a session Wednesday at Jupitermedia Corp.'s Instant Messaging Planet Conference & Expo, speakers offered ambitious visions regarding the evolution of instant messaging in the enterprise.

Andrew Wolff, an IM Planet speaker and vice president of products for DYS Analytics Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., said a number of enterprise-oriented IM products already allow disparate users to collaborate or Web surf.

And that's just the beginning. IM is also the perfect "launching pad" for any number of other enterprise applications, like sales force automation and employee training, said speaker Matthew Smith, chief operating officer and co-founder of LiveOffice Corp. in Torrance, Calif.

The attention being paid to plug-ins, security and other third-party IM products for the enterprise demonstrates the technology's staying power, said Kieran McCorry, principal consultant with Hewlett-Packard Co. He noted that when the first corporate e-mail systems became popular 10 years ago, similar add-ons were few and far between.

"We're seeing a lot of value in the add-on products that go with IM, and I think that's changing people's perceptions about the value" of enterprise IM, McCorry said.

He estimated that as many as 160,000 employees at HP use instant messaging. While he admitted that a fair percentage of IM usage at the company is personal in nature, the additional business productivity enabled by IM more than compensates for any time lost.

But that doesn't mean a company should simply encourage workers to use IM applications without developing a strategy. An enterprise first needs to determine whether public IM applications -- like MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger -- are sufficient for its needs, or if it should buy an enterprise-caliber system, said Ennio Carboni, director of product management at IMlogic Inc., in Waltham, Mass.

Next, Carboni said, a business should align its technology goals to meet its strategic ones. For instance, he said, it's important to establish whether the use of IM applications is meant to accomplish simple goals, like easing communication and reducing e-mail, or more ambitious ones, like cutting travel costs.

Without an IM strategy, McCorry said, a company's employees will engage in "stealth" IM use: namely downloading, installing and using public IM applications without the support of their firm's IT department, exposing the company to unnecessary security risks.

Additionally, many companies don't realize that, once IM becomes a mission-critical application, downtime that was once inconsequential becomes a much bigger problem, said Ryan Gaylor, product manager for Chicago-based Parlano Inc.

While the answer for some companies may be banning the use of public IM services in favor of a single enterprise platform, McCorry said that strategy often fails. Typically, workers are no longer able to communicate with customers and business partners outside the company, since most public IM networks aren't interoperable with enterprise systems.

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Carboni said that, until IM vendors resolve those issues, any company that's using instant messaging today should plan on supporting multiple IM systems.

Richard Dalton, an attendee with TeleSpan Publishing Corp., said that he attended the conference to learn more about enterprise IM strategy. His company uses a number of IM and videoconferencing platforms so that employees around the world can communicate with each other.

Dalton said that it seems like an IP-based multi-platform strategy is probably the right choice for his company, but enterprise IM technology is "so immature at this point" that it complicates the decision-making process.

Attendee Tom Classen, of interior design firm William Conrad & Co., said that his company isn't using an IM system right now, but it's considering one so that employees can communicate more easily with business partners and gain an advantage over competitors.

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