Instant Messaging’s Gonna Get You
Instant messaging (IM) is going global. It has already overtaken decades of development in telephony, email and the Web, and it has all the hallmarks of an IT market about to pop: Hordes of startups hoping to make a fortune, big vendors (IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo!and AOL) fighting to control the market and customers with proprietary software, a number of fledgling—and competing—open standards efforts, consortia springing up (e.g., the Financial Services Instant Messaging Association [FIMA]), industry info-portals going up (e.g., Jupiter Media’s Instant Messaging Planet.com) and IT departments often left hopelessly in the dust by determined end users.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
That last point is key. IM is user-driven technology; it’s been pulled into the enterprise without the approval or knowledge of most IT departments. We might argue about the degree of “business value” in IM (see “Does IM Have Business Value?” in BCR, August 2003), but that debate is, in large part, moot: Users want it and believe they need it. As was the case with the Web, email before it and the PC before that, the IT department can either get aboard the instant messaging train or get out of the way; trying to stop it is not an option.
Arguments against IM sound much like the arguments made against letting users access the World Wide Web a decade ago: a waste of time, a terrible risk, a consumer phenomenon with no place in the business world, etc. But try to find an enterprise today that prevents employees from accessing the Internet from their office desktops. The same is likely to happen with IM; in a few years, most end users will take access to IM for granted and almost all IT departments will make IM a core communications service.
Today, the use of IM is generational, led by younger people who grew up with AOL. Indeed, if you haven’t been a heavy user of AOL or MSN, you probably don’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Assuming you’re past the age of 20, you may recall a similar debate over email. As recently as the early 1990s, most manager-level folks wouldn’t touch it. For someone who didn’t type or wasn’t comfortable trying to discern nuances of meaning in text messaging, email seemed like a step down.
Similarly, many heavy email users don’t feel comfortable with IM—the frequent use of ad hoc abbreviations (r u ready 4 im? lol, etc.), the total lack of punctuation and constant interruption. But IM has established its own style and pace of communication that is well attuned to the multi-tasking, real-time interaction needs of many business users today.
IM won’t eliminate email, but it might cut into it over time. Every day, Internet email, which is based on weak (but simple) protocols that practically beg for abuse, becomes more unusable from spam and viruses. Wading through a mailbox full of unwanted email to find a few important messages doesn’t cut it, particularly if you’re in a business that has to provide really fast responses.
IM As Universal Communications
We now have the chance to build a global IM infrastructure that could give users a lot more control over how they communicate (encrypted, logged, real-time or asynchronous, text or voice or video, etc.) and with whom (e.g., only my buddies). IM is on track to become the first truly unified, converged, personal communication system, and the first “true” convergence applications might arrive as voice and video extensions to IM.
Microsoft and AOL both recently introduced such features in their recent releases of IM services, and they work about as well as could be expected given the limitations of the built-in microphones and cheap screen-top digital video cameras. But if PCs become serious unified communications devices, they could easily acquire sophisticated audio and video capabilities using technologies such as microphone arrays and 3D cameras.
We’re already seeing applications, portals and monitoring systems use IM to alert managers or service personal of time-critical information. There are many ways to upgrade IM transport and management to “enterprise-grade,” without making the users do much, while gaining compliance with strict regulatory requirements (HIPAA, SEC, NASD, Sarbanes-Oxley) and some protection from hacking. A swarm of startups offer various approaches to giving IT managers a handle on policy, security and reliability for instant messaging, and enterprise versions of IM are available from all the major vendors that offer servers behind your private firewall.
But while the simplicity of one-on-one text IM is what made it so appealing, one of IM’s great advantages is its ability to multiplex more than one conversation at a time in different windows on a single desktop. You can’t do that with a voice IM (although you could with video). But there is a potential downside: IM clients of the future might end up looking like Outlook.
Presence—A Core Enterprise Network Service
What’s really new and important in today’s IM is the concept of presence. Unless you use IM a lot, it’s hard to comprehend what a tremendous increase in productivity and flexibility you get from a community that actively and thoughtfully maintains presence information. You are aware of your community, who’s online and who’s not; who has put out a do-not-disturb sign and who has indicated that the doctor is in.
Maintaining a real-time database of presence information about a community will be at the core of enterprise collaboration infrastructure. Every vendor is racing to figure out how to leverage the availability of real-time presence data, and presence service soon will have a place alongside other key enterprise network infrastructure support services such as time, directory, authentication, search, etc.
Many applications will benefit from having access to presence data to more accurately route alerts and queries and to add IM capabilities to application sharing. Microsoft is about to introduce its Office Live Communications Server, which has APIs for this kind of application enrichment (see “Microsoft Calling: Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” in this issue). Imagine if, while debugging software, you could access the current online status for the person who wrote the code and IM them with a question. Microsoft is planning such capabilities for Visual Studio.
As far as we’ve come, however, today’s presence capabilities are too primitive and simplistic. Presence is a sensitive area; it involves sharing personal data, which requires lots of personal control. Today, you can’t add someone to your MSN contact list unless that person first agrees to it. With each new service release, the major IM service providers are increasing the range of options for how you show your status, and you’ll soon be able to show a different status to different groups of contacts; during part of the day, you may be available to one group of colleagues but busy to many others. If you go into an online conference you might limit your availability to the conference participants. This “contextual” presence service gives a whole new connotation to calling someone status-conscious.
If There’s A Standards Fight, It Must Be A Hot Area
The standards bodies have not been oblivious to all this IM activity and interest. Today, IM is dominated by proprietary approaches that only interoperate in a lowest common denominator fashion. IM is never going to become anything other than a niche technology unless we get past the balkanization; the vendors need to unite behind a core set of protocols and conventions.
In the 1980s, while the vendors fought over protocols like SNA, DECnet and NetWare, the fax machine and the telephone were the only truly universal communication media. With industry-wide agreement on the Internet protocols, however, the Web became another global medium for business. The same must happen for IM.
Unfortunately, there are two competing standardization efforts around IM: XMPP (eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, a.k.a. Jabber) and SIP/SIMPLE (Session Initiation Protocol/SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions). This has all the hallmarks of a classic Internet-community protocol war: a simple, flexible, totally extensible, XML-based approach based on open source software on the one side (Jabber) and a complicated, telecom-industry-derived approach supported by the industry gorillas such as IBM and Microsoft on the other (SIP/SIMPLE).
IM and presence will be at the core of future collaboration, and will be part of a key strategy for improving productivity, reducing cycle times and becoming more responsive to customers. IT departments need to lay out a roadmap for IM, presence and collaboration and integrate these capabilities into their application and infrastructure architectures, in the process making hard choices about which vendors, services and standards to back.