Technology Briefing: Instant Messaging

By Gerald Williams

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Instant Messaging (IM) entered the corporate infrastructure by the back door. Popularized by AOL, IM allows users to locate and establish an independent sessions with another user. Once connected, the users can exchange comments in real-time and share files. The growth of IM led other ISPs to implement proprietary messaging functions for their customers. The vendors mostly designed IM for home users, but several users migrated the application to their office systems.

IM Product Briefing
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IM in the corporate workplace remains controversial. Users claim that the software provides a boost to productivity. They say they can quickly get answers from suppliers and co-workers without the delays of voice mail and e-mail. They also argue that it is less expensive. IT managers argue that IM software breeches security. Also, the managers claim that unauthorized IM applications create support problems. In addition, corporate managers worry that IM conversations can serve as a distraction rather than a productivity tool.

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Less Than Secure
The security concerns are legitimate. For an IM system to work, a user's workstation must broadcast that it is on the network. Once two workstations connect, the conversation takes place across a virtual connection. Most IM systems currently do not support such security staples as authentication and encryption. This means that a hacker can intercept any exchange of information. An unauthorized person also can use an IM connection to access the corporate network and possibly introduce viruses. Further, IM exchanges typically are not logged, and this makes it impossible for corporate management to monitor and control the links.

IT managers can complain, but IM usage continues to grow. Most IM systems operate as a proprietary application, but this is changing quickly. AOL is under a government mandate to communicate with other IM applications, and several vendors support the emerging Session initiation protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE) standard. This proposed format allows users to use the Internet for voice exchanges and establish conferences. The momentum toward a more open IM standard will increase with Microsoft's instant messaging support under its Windows XP operating system.

An Evolution Towards Collaboration
The next generation of IM applications also will include important extensions to support corporate practices. IM implementations will lead to collaborative systems, and IT managers need to take control of this emerging application. Some of the extensions that IT managers can anticipate include:

Moving Forward
Managers need to develop rules for the use of IM. Like the early days of e-mail, this technology creates a democratic system of information exchange that lacks a definition of proper usage. Unlike e-mail, IM users know that the recipient's workstation is working. When a user receives an instant message, it creates a false urgency that many find impossible to ignore. Still, the message represents an interruption for the recipient, and it may be counter-productive to respond immediately. Managers will need to establish rules to avoid being swamped by unwanted connections.

Ultimately, IM systems will become the cornerstone of more extensive collaborative applications. These multifunctional software packages will combine instant messaging with real-time multimedia exchange and tools to support virtual meetings. Until these packages mature, however, IT managers will need to support and control IM applications, regardless of how they were introduced to corporate computing environment.

This product briefing was first published on CrossNodes, an internet.com site.