IM Fills In When Phones Fail

Some Web sites slowed to a crawl on Tuesday, in the wake of terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. While e-mail emerged as a prime source of communication for both news services and citizens, a newer technology stepped up to the plate to help both consumers and businesses keep in touch.

Instant messaging (IM) is used by consumers and businesses alike to electronically correspond on both a one-to-one basis and within groups. And while specific numbers are hard to come by just one day after the deliberate and deadly attacks, it is clear from those in the IM industry that instant messaging rose to the challenge of helping people to communicate during this time of tragedy — especially when phones both wired and wireless weren’t always usable when needed.

A spokesperson for Microsoft Corp.’s MSN could not immediately provide specific figures from yesterday or today for usage of the MSN Messenger service. But MSN Lead Project Manager Sarah Lefko said, “It’s not unusual for MSN to see a large jump in traffic to our network in times of crisis.”

“MSN has taken steps to add additional servers to handle the increase in traffic and have turned off CPU intensive features that are not related to communications,” Lefko also said. “We want to make sure that everyone who needs to communicate via…MSN Messenger has the ability to do so.”

“Although no one could predict the magnitude and scope of this tragedy, on breaking news days, MSN, along with MSNBC is fully prepared to handle the enormous response to the unfolding events,” she added.

Officials from neither America Online nor Yahoo made themselves available for comment for this story. AOL offers its own AOL Instant Messenger (AOL IM) service, while Yahoo has an IM service called Yahoo Messenger.

CBS MarketWatch quoted an AOL spokesperson, though, as saying that the number of messages sent via both AOL IM and by people using AOL’s proprietary client software went up to 1.2 billion on Tuesday. The spokesperson told the financial-news Web site that the figure was probably a record, although he would not provide an average of daily usage.

IM is already making a major impact in the lives of those who consider themselves to be wired. A recent study from Gartner Group showed that 52 percent of consumers and 51 percent of business users use AOL IM. Additionally, 36 percent of consumers and 40 percent of business users use MSN Messenger, while many consumers use both brands, Gartner also said.

What’s more, the number of instant messaging users worldwide will reach 180 million by 2004. And Gartner predicts that 60 percent of all real-time online communication — either voice or text — will be driven through instant messaging technology.

Corporate IM’ing Steps Up As Well

On the corporate side of things, International Data Corp. (IDC) expects that more than 2 trillion instant messages will go between consumers and businesses by 2004, and that corporate IM users around the world will increase from 18.4 million in 2001 to 229.2 million in 2005. That translates to corporate IM revenues growing from $133 million in 2001 to $1.1 billion by 2005.

IM use by business will account for 50 percent of all instant messaging by 2004, up from 20 percent this year, IDC also predicted. And Ferris Research says corporate instant messaging will take up 60 percent of all IM traffic by 2005.

One company that hopes to be in the thick of the corporate IM world is PresenceWorks of Arlington, Va. PresenceWorks develops and licenses instant messaging technology for business.

Matt Smith, PresenceWorks chief executive officer (CEO), said his company’s current technology, which includes an enterprise server, an application-service provider (ASP) service and a software development kit — is in beta, so he could not say if businesses using it increased their usage after Tuesday’s tragic events.

Smith did say that the eight employees in his own company had a “steady stream” of instant messages going both Tuesday and today. “We went to instant messaging when our phones and cell phones went down,” he said in an interview. “We basically depended on IM on both our computers and on RIM devices.”

RIM devices, also known as Blackberrys, enable wireless e-mail and IM communications.

“When you can’t get a dial tone or a cell phone to work, but IM is working, IM shines a bit brighter,” Smith said.

PresenceWorks used IM to complete the morning’s business on Tuesday, as well as to inform employees that the company was shutting down in the afternoon. Then IM’ing took a more personal tone for PresenceWorks employees, as they used the technology to keep in touch about relatives and friends who may have been affected by the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.

The company is closed today, but is using IM to take care of housekeeping issues, Smith also said. Employees even used IM and e-mail to cancel meetings scheduled in New York City later this week.

Bantu Inc., which integrates device-independent, real-time communication capabilities into any application or service, is located a half-mile away from the White House and a few miles from the Pentagon. As with most companies in the Washington and New York areas, it found itself dealing with less-than-adequate landline and cellular phone service.

Bantu President and CEO Larry Schlang said in an interview that usage of his company’s services went up “dramatically” on Tuesday, although specific numbers were not immediately available. He said that usage was especially up on the East Coast and in the Washington area. He also said that traffic on his service went up significantly in the morning soon after the attacks, then decreased after 2:00 PM EDT, when many businesses sent their employees home.

Schlang also found that people who were traveling and could not reach their families or offices by traditional means ended up using the Bantu system to communicate. That situation also affected a top Bantu official, who found that IM’ing was “a real lifeline” while stuck in California, Schlang said.

“It’s this kind of crisis situation, when news and information constantly changes, when IM works well,” he said. “People really wanted to reach out and see if everyone was okay.”

Because of the terrorist attacks, one aspect of the IM field that’s bound to be talked about even more than before is security, Schlang said. “Going forward, having a highly secure and robust IM solution will be crucial for business users, especially when this (medium) becomes a primary means of communication in situations like (Tuesday’s) emergency.”

Bob Woods is the managing editor of

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