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.

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