AOL’s Enterprise IM Plans – Update

America Online may be changing its mind about offering a fully hosted, secure version of its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service.

Last month, InstantMessagingPlanet discovered a Web page and an Adobe Acrobat (.PDF) file that described the online Goliath’s intent to offer hosted “Secure AIM Services” for companies that want to implement confidential, fully hosted IM services while at the same time maintain interoperability with AIM members who are consumer and/or corporate users.

According to the old Web page and .PDF file, AOL’s Secure AIM Services would have guaranteed confidential IM’ing for the enterprise, as the system would have seamlessly issue security credentials and used them to ensure end-to-end delivery of IMs. The new enterprise IM service also would have featured a Secure Document Delivery Service that allowed individuals and enterprises to securely send documents over the Internet.

Besides encryption and security, Secure AIM Services would have logged message exchanges for auditing and archiving, according to the Web page. The system would have also reconciled AOL screen names against a corporate directory, making users easy to recognize and remember.

Now, any reference to the name “Secure AIM Services” is gone from AOL marketing materials, as are many of the previously mentioned features. Instead, the online giant is promoting a previously revealed secure IM communications product that uses VeriSign Inc. technology. In its newly revamped marketing materials, AOL describes “Enterprise AIM” as an “extension of AOL Instant Messenger that allows enterprise users to exchange encrypted instant messages with other users of Enterprise AIM.”

The AOL-hosted Enterprise AIM will distribute VeriSign security credentials to enterprises that want to authenticate their employees to use encrypted messaging via AIM. Enterprise AIM will provide end-to-end encryption to ensure message privacy. The actual encryption is virtually transparent to users, and the issuance of security credentials is handled by a one-click system.

Communications with non-Enterprise AIM users — the people on the consumer end of the AIM service — would be in unencrypted clear text. All communications currently conducted via the AIM service are “in the clear.”

AOL says Enterprise AIM will be available sometime this summer.

The big question now is the status of “Secure AIM Services” and many of its features that are not mentioned as a part of Enterprise AIM. AOL spokesperson Marty Gordon said in an interview that only the name was changed on the product. He also said he could not comment further on any of Enterprise AIM’s specific features because the system has not been formally announced by AOL. “There’s some basic information on the site, and we indicate that (Enterprise AIM) is coming soon,” he said.

In its new marketing materials, AOL said the Enterprise AIM product is “the first in a series of solutions that AOL is introducing to increase the value and manageability of AIM for organizations.” So, “stay tuned,” Gordon added.

With the changes, companies looking to implement enterprise IM will have to wait a while longer to see just how strong of an offering AOL’s corporate AIM will be. In a previous analysis, we said Secure AIM Services would have brought AOL up to snuff with most others enterprise IM solutions currently available on the market. One of the big attractions would have been the system’s interoperability with the AIM network, the most popular of the public IM networks. One possible stumbling block, though, would have been the hosted aspect of Secure AIM Services. Some CIOs and/or corporate IT managers may not have wanted AOL — or any company, for that matter — to host such a service, opting instead for self-hosting.

Even though AOL’s Enterprise AIM doesn’t have the number of features as what Secure AIM Services appeared to have, it does address one of the big security-related fears held by companies and organizations that want to use the popular public AIM network — the security of actual messages between two users.

But the VeriSign/AOL combination won’t be the first to offer encoded IM on the AOL network. Already, Cerulean Studios’ Trillian offers encrypted IM via the AIM network, as long as both people in the IM conversation are using the client. Official security certificates aren’t issued as part of the IM conversation, though. More importantly, Trillian has not been given an official blessing by AOL to use the AIM network, and AOL in the past has blocked people using the popular client from AIM.

AOL Beams to the Enterprise

As the company sees slower subscriber growth from its proprietary AOL service, it is now pushing into the overall enterprise IT market, of which instant messaging makes up a part. As it does, it takes on another giant company, Microsoft Corp. .

AOL’s Strategic Business Solutions unit actually grew out of AOL’s iPlanet partnership with that other Microsoft nemesis, Sun Microsystems . “These are activities we’ve been involved in since the Netscape acquisition,” the portal and software company AOL acquired in 1999, Gordon said. “We’re continuing to evolve them” with business partners, he also said.

iPlanet had focused on helping businesses deliver Internet-related services, including bill presentment and payment and e-commerce products, to their clients. As of March, the iPlanet alliance expired, and some of the products were folded back into AOL’s Strategic Business Solutions unit.

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.

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.

Content from sister site atNewYork contributed to this article. Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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