Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Instant Messaging in the workplace

Instant Messaging (IM) allows people who are working to interrupt each other with quick questions, and equally quick responses, in a sort of short-hand socializing. IM is banned or simply not supported in most corporate environments -- only 18 percent of Fortune 500 companies allow IM in the workplace. That's a little like the internet a few years ago. Remember companies refusing to allow employees to access the web at work because they believed it was counterproductive or insecure?

IM has been one of those contentious technologies that corporations don't approve of because of its frivolous roots. It's hard to control or monitor, it may have security problems, and it rarely leaves an audit trail. It's disruptive.

Which is why it has been succesful. AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) started out many many years ago as a feature of AOL, the least business-like of the online services, and was adopted by teens as a natural way to stay in touch. Microsoft and Yahoo launched their own instant messaging service, because you couldn't woo AOL customers away if you were going to deprive them of their AIM. People started using IM as an aid to collaboration in the workplace, and it rapidly became a communication tool that many could not do without. Why is it popular? E-mail is cumbersome and slow, and ill-suited for quick informal exchanges; the phone is similarly unwieldy. Like SMS, Instant Messaging is, well, instant.

And that matters to business.

IM is no longer a marginal technology: A Pew Internet and American Life Project report says that 11 million people in the US use IM at work. There are more than 76 million IM users in total, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, with MSN finally edging out AOL (28.6 and 27.6 million respectively).

Typically free with a consumer account at MSN, Yahoo, or AOL, Instant Messaging is now trying to find a corporate business model. Companies such as Jabber, Akonix, and Five Across are providing IM tools that look a little more business-like than the gaudy, smiley-face-laden interfaces of AIM. They hope to overcome the prejudices that corporate decision-makers have by presenting IM as a serious communication tool in a serious package.

IM will generate $131 million in revenues in 2004. But according to the Radicati Group, IM-revenues will hit $413 million in 2008. Jabber is already the corporate IM tool for companies like Disney and AT&T. Their approach has been to go for the enterprise sale, and implement IM top-down. Companies like Five Across seem to be taking the opposite approach: make the basic tool free, get lots of people to use it, then sell a corporate upgrade.

As with the web, once business accepts IM as a useful productivity tool, we’ll find many creative uses for it.

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