AOL Plans Secure AIM Services

EDITOR’S NOTE: After the original publication of this story, America Online removed all references to Secure AIM Services in the Web page and .PDF file referenced below. As of 06/13/02, the company was promoting its Enterprise AIM service via the Web page and .PDF file. Yet the online giant promises that Enterprise AIM is “the first in a series of solutions that AOL is introducing to increase the value and manageability of AIM for organizations.”

America Online, the online arm of media goliath AOL Time Warner , is readying a new enterprise-strength version of its immensely popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) product, according to Web pages and documents found by InstantMessagingPlanet.

AOL officials are mum on the topic. But according to this Web page, the online giant plans to host “Secure AIM Services” for companies that want to implement confidential IM while at the same time maintain interoperability with AIM members who are consumer and/or corporate users.

According to the Web pages and documents, AOL will guarantee confidential IM’ing for the enterprise with Secure AIM Services, as the system will seamlessly issue security credentials and use them to ensure end-to-end delivery of IMs. The new enterprise IM service also features a Secure Document Delivery Service that allows individuals and enterprises to securely send documents over the Internet.

Besides encryption, Secure AIM Services will log message exchanges for auditing and archiving. The system will also reconcile AOL screen names against a corporate directory, making users easy to recognize and remember.

Additional details about the service were not made available by AOL.

The planned release date of Secure AIM Services is somewhat murky. An AOL Web page says it’ll be rolled out in the spring of this year; an Adobe Acrobat-based marketing document detailing all of AOL Strategic Business Solutions’ new services, though, promises a summer introduction.

A Killer App?

Secure AIM Services’ features extend way beyond the capabilities of AIM’s public client, and brings the AOL enterprise IM offering up to snuff with most others solutions currently available on the market. A real bonus for Secure AIM Services, though, is the screen name/corporate directory reconciliation feature. After all, who knows at first glance that “ISkiOften3425” is really the head of sales and marketing at a company?

The biggest selling point of this new service is interoperability. Very few enterprise IM companies offer clear — call it “legal” — interoperability with AIM via a formal agreement with AOL. And AIM is the undisputed king of public IM networks, as AOL says AIM has more than 150 million registered members worldwide. A very security conscious company that doesn’t want its employees IM’ing with those outside the firm may not care about being able to “talk” to AIM members. But interoperability is very important for companies that already communicate with customers, employees and suppliers via the network.

A possible stumbling block for AOL, though, comes from how the service itself is run. From all indications, it appears that AOL will itself host Secure AIM Services. Some CIOs and/or corporate IT managers may not want AOL — or any company, for that matter — to host such a service, opting instead for some way of having more control over the enterprise IM solution.

Also, while AOL guarantees confidential IM’ing between parties, nothing is said about the security of the network itself. Will AOL simply use its existing AIM public network for Secure AIM Services, or will it build a separate network that interoperates with the public network? Or will it be secured in a different way? As IM’ing becomes more popular, all of the public IM networks will undoubtedly become targets for creators of viruses and worms.

InstantMessagingPlanet notes that recent security problems involving the public AIM system have involved the AIM client itself and not the actual network.

Even with these concerns, AOL’s enterprise-strength IM system is definitely an attractive option for companies wanting interoperability with the largest public IM network and secure communications at the same time.

AOL may not find it easy to dominate the enterprise IM market, though — while it runs the most popular of one of a very few public IM networks and has been in that space the longest, it will find itself among many corporate IM players. A recent study from INT Media Research shows that Microsoft Windows Messenger dominates the enterprise IM space with 33% of all installations, while Lotus Sametime has 15% of the marketplace. Seven other enterprise IM providers each have from 3% to 8% of the market, and “homebrew” applications built by individual companies themselves total about 12% of the arena.

When it comes to workplace use of free IM services, according to the study, AOL came in first at 30%, while MSN Messenger nipped at AIM’s heels at 28%. ICQ was third at 19%, followed closely by Yahoo Messenger at 18%. These numbers suggest that AOL will find traction in the market, but it will face a formidable foe in Microsoft, which is marketing its own enterprise IM offerings.

AOL Goes Webbing

Secure AIM Services are being sold by a unit called AOL Strategic Business Solutions, which combines Netscape enterprise software, AOL technologies and AOL Time Warner content to deliver into a market that’s hot and only getting hotter — Web services.

The overall concept of Web services promises the ability to knit together disparate platforms within and beyond the enterprise. Such services will let customers, partners and suppliers seamlessly share information and content without having to understand each other’s various IT structures.

For its part, AOL said its Web services can integrate with enterprise Web applications through support for open Internet standards, enabling a company to rapidly deploy reliable and easy-to-use services.

While it appears that Secure AIM Services will be available only in a hosted environment, other AOL Web Services can be used in either stand-alone deployments or in ASP-style environments.

AOL says its Web services will include:

  • Identity Services that incorporate AOL technologies for membership management, screen name, and presence awareness;
  • Communication Services for enterprise-wide e-mail, calendaring, secure IM and Web site services. These services will incorporate AOL technologies for IM, alerts, voice dialog, event manager and presence awareness;
  • Content Services that enable integration of AOL and Time Warner premium content with a full range of Web site deployments, from internal employee portals to full-featured public sites.

Web services will continue to be hot over the next few years. Gartner Inc. says the sector is so nascent that it is quite underestimated. By 2005, the research firm predicts, Web services will drive a 30% increase in the efficiency of IT development projects for functionality inclusion.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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