On the Internet, chat isnt idle anymore.
In approving the $103.5 billion merger between America Online and Time Warner in January, the US Federal Communications Commission stipulated that AOL must allow users of competing programs to communicate with its "instant messaging programs" when AOL makes high-speed versions available.
Instant messaging, or IM, is the latest incarnation of online chat (a feature which has been popular with young people on the Internet since a Finnish man created Internet Relay Chat in 1988).
Instant messaging is instant gratification. Unlike with e-mail or on-line group discussions, theres no cooling your heels as you wait for responses to your typed-in comments, questions, jokes, insults, or flirtations. You just check to see if a pal is on-line and available, key in a "Wassup?" or its equivalent, and then youre chatting away.
Growth in Business Use Predicted
The FCCs involvement underscores that IM is big business. Along with its more social aspects, IM can provide buttoned-down benefits for many organizations.
Business use of IM, until recently just a trickle, is expected to surge. IDC, an information technology market research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts, projects that the business IM market will grow 140% during each of the next five years, from 5.5 million users worldwide in 2000 to 180 million users in 2004.
IM use in the business sector has surprised a lot of people. "Instant messaging is a technology that nobody planned on," says Ken Orr, a researcher with the Cutter Research Foundation, an information technology research group in Arlington, Massachusetts. "Over the past two years, people have realized they can use IM for a lot more than just chat."
Among the many uses: Mail-order companies are deploying IM for customer service to help prevent long telephone hold times. E-commerce companies are bolstering their Web sites with IM buttons so customers can immediately chat with a customer service rep rather than send e-mail. Businesses in many industries are leveraging IM for collaboration. Universities are using it for distance learning.
Current IM Software
The most popular IM software for consumers are two programs now owned by AOL: ICQ (pronounced "I seek you"), which was created by a small Israeli company and is available for download at http://www.icq.com, and AOL Instant Messenger at http://www.aol.com/aim.Yahoo Messenger at http://messenger.yahoo.com and MSN Messenger at http://messenger.msn.com are also players. All are free.
Of the four, ICQ (which Ive had the longest experience with) is the most comprehensive and provides the best tools for finding and organizing your contacts, setting up group meetings, and protecting against unwanted contacts. Yahoo Instant Messenger is the easiest to get started with.
IM programs that specialize in business use include Lotus Sametime at http://www.lotus.com/sametime,Novells Instantme at http://www.digitalme.com, QuickConference at http://www.prgrsoft.com,e/pop at http://www.wiredred.com, and Jabber at http://www.jabber.com. Businesses using these programs typically set them up on their own private servers rather than public servers.
Theres nothing stopping businesses from saving money by using free consumer IM products and public servers for business IM use. The pay products, however, offer considerably beefed-up security.
Taking a Critical Look
Instant messaging in general does have its downside, of course. Used indiscriminately, it can be a distraction and a time sink. Also, typing on a PC for most people isnt as convenient or as communicative as talking on the phone.
Also, unlike e-mail, IM programs dont typically provide an audit trail unless users manually save or print out each session. If you need a record of your communications, e-mail or other technologies are better choices.
In addition, instant messaging lacks the interoperability of e-mail. If youre using Yahoo Messenger, for instance, you cant communicate with someone using ICQ. AOL thus far has thwarted attempts by other companies to enable their IM products to communicate with AOLs. AOL cites security concerns, but most observers feel the company is trying to protect its market share.
Sunny Forecast for IM
Despite its downside, instant messaging is a new technology that has a wide open future. Wireless, voice, and video are among the many possible applications that could take off. "The best uses," says Orr, "havent been thought of yet."
In the future at least, the FCCs recent action will force AOL to use open standards. Although AOL isnt revealing its plans, this change will enable other IM programs to communicate with AOLs programs, and thus help fuel the growth of the IM industry as a whole. IM will probably never replace e-mail, however it could easily become as common.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.