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Should There Be Fear and Loathing of Instant Messaging?

For most people, the words "instant messaging" conjure images of chat-happy teens banging away at their keyboards to talk with friends. Logically, it's a cost-effective solution when one considers the hours they could spend tying up the phone for long-distance calls. And it does wonders in terms of positive branding for those who supply the service, including AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo! and others.

But Stamford, Conn.'s InsightExpress chose to study IM in a different capacity recently. The market research firm looked at how IM is being used in the workplace as opposed to, say, how Julie is IMing her friend about whether Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera is better.

No, InsightExpress looked at how 20 percent of instant messaging occurs at the workplace and is used to get the job done, not talk to "buddies." The firm surveyed 300 consumers to gauge the current state of instant messaging in America. Forty-seven percent of consumers said they use instant messaging. And of those, 96 percent said they use IM at home and 20 percent use instant messaging at work. Not surprisingly, 39 percent of the latter participants said it helps improve job productivity. This makes sense, particularly in media companies that have multiple remote offices. Rather than picking up the phone, an editor could hold multiple exchanges with writers located all over the country to do such things as set agendas or assign stories. To be sure, nearly half of all respondents, 49 percent, use instant messaging as a replacement for a telephone call while one third, 35 percent, use it in place of sending an e-mail.

Now 300 users is just a small sample, it's true. Another Stamford-based research firm, Gartner Group, looked at IM use from a business standpoint... and promptly threw up the red flag. Gartner said businesses that use instant messaging are introducing serious security risks not yet widely recognized or properly addressed.

For one, there is no interoperability, which most people have been aware of due to the media's coverage of the great public outcries against AOL, which did not want to make it so. But perhaps most alarming is the ease with which IMs may be altered or hi-jacked because they rely on low-level protocols. Then there is the fact that their infrastructures are difficult to operate on a global scale; they are tough to manage by IT groups.

Taking Gartner's warnings into consideration, one might be reluctant to jump on the IM bandwagon, at least for business use. But ignorance-is-bliss-filled home users are sucking it up. While InsightExpress looked at the momentum of IM on the business side, Yankee Group's Interactive Consumer Survey 2001 touched base with 3,000 U.S. online households to see what was shaking. It found that an impressive 71 percent of online consumers use IM; more women than men use it (74% to 67%); and -- not a shocker -- younger online consumers prefer IM over the older segment, with 85 percent of users aged 18 to 24 saying they use the tool compared to 62 percent of those aged in 55-64 saying they use IM.

So, where are people getting their instant messaging access from? According to InsightExpress, Instant messaging users said they use multiple services, including market leader AOL (56%), runner up MSN (47%), Yahoo (32%), ICQ (14%) and other (6%). The Yankee Group begged to differ, but only slightly. It says AOL's lead is a little more substantial: AOL (57%), MSN (37%), Yahoo (31%), ICQ (20%), Prodigy/Odigo (1%) and other (7%).

Indeed, instant messaging has its popularity roots in the media/tech giant now known as AOL Time Warner, which has seen an unprecedented 100 million users from all walks of life sign up for its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service. And while there are plenty of firms seeking to stake their claim in the expanding IM pie, Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger service is the closest rival, with about 36 million users.

AOL and Microsoft -- that is where the competition gets interesting. Rob Lancaster, an Internet market strategies analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group, said Microsoft would offer its own counterpunch.

AOL's AIM market share compared to Microsoft's Windows Messenger seems staggering, but Lancaster has confidence that Microsoft will not go quietly.

"It does seem insurmountable, but one should never underestimate Microsoft," Lancaster wrote via e-mail. His evidence?

"1. Microsoft plans to bundle its IM in XP, which will give it a huge competitive advantage 2. IM is a critical part of Microsoft's .NET strategy, especially the Hailstorm services planned for launch next year, so the company will push its distribution aggressively. 3. Microsoft is very strong internationally, and will be able use the influence of MSN and Windows to further market its IM."

"At this point it's really unclear who is going to win," Lancaster told InternetNews.com. "There isn't so much of a fight around IM now as there will be in two years when broadband access becomes more ubiquitous. By then it won't be just about sending text -- it will involve interactive media and much larger blocks of data. It has the potential to replace e-mail, which by then will seem like writing a letter. And more services will allow people be able to log messages, as you can in Yahoo [Messenger]."

Although it's unclear when the new, media-rich technologies will be widely available, count audio chat, videoconferencing and file sharing among the new tools added to the IM mix. And while the lack of interoperability provided by AOL has been a thorn in competitors' sides, Microsoft as recently as last month showed off its new IM application, Windows Messenger, which will let people share applications, giving someone the ability to write in another person's document. Windows Messenger will be bundled in the pending Windows XP operating system, due, depending on who you ask, in September or October.

Interestingly, AOL has shrugged off the media-heavy approach, claiming that consumers don't want it. But what about business users? Videoconferencing and other forms of streaming communications have been reasonably popular, have they not? Perhaps, but AOL is sticking to its consumer-oriented guns.

Lancaster said he believes IM has a strong place in the enterprise, and will only get stronger on the wings of competition between AOL, Microsoft, several smaller players such as Jabber, and Groove Networks.

However, it stands to reason that the more complex IM technologically gets, the stronger the security that must be employed. And, when one considers Gartner's research, the IM sector is far behind. Gartner did, however, offer suggestions. The research firm said companies should:

  • Determine the degree of free IM use within the organization and the business purposes for which it is used
  • Establish policies stating what uses of IM are appropriate within certain business transactions
  • Install commercial (behind the firewall) IM applications.
  • Configure the firewall to deny access to unsupported or unauthorized free IM services
  • Consider using an application service provider for corporate IM services, particularly where users have IM exchanges with customers, vendors and other external users

As far as safer, more reliable IM goes, it seems AOL, Microsoft, et al. have their work cut out for them.