Enterprise IM’s Liquid-ity

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” the old saying goes. It can be adapted to the entrepreneurial world, too: “Necessity is the generator of a new business.”

Two young men, barely out of high school, decided to use their expertise in computer programming to create an instant messaging system. They decided to target the enterprise market with their new creation, because they saw an untapped market for their new application.

Two years later, with the help of angel investors, Liquid Communication Systems LLC is readying the launch of its application. The company’s top two officers, president and CEO Hayes Davis and VP and CFO Forrest Samuels, are in their third year of studies at North Carolina State University, near the Research Triangle Park (RTP) area. Davis is majoring in computer science, while Samuels is getting his degree in computer engineering.

Oh yeah, they’re both 21. But their IT and business experience speaks volumes about what they’ve learned in the past few years.

It all started two years ago, when Davis and Samuels were roommates and had programming jobs. As they were playing around with networking applications, they thought to develop an instant messenger system.

Even with the informal development of the IM system, Davis said he had been thinking since the end of 1999 that a business IM client would go into “an untapped market,” as he called it. “So we sort of started working throughout that semester and came up with a little proof of concept application,” he said.

From there, both partners approached several angel investors with a business plan, and secured funding for the new Liquid Communications Systems.

Now, the company has 11 people total working for it, including the investors. Davis and Samuels aren’t the only ones still in school, either — two of the other people that started the company with them are still students in their third year of computer science at N.C. State as well.

Liquid’s “The Client”

The interview for this article was conducted via IM using Liquid’s Mercury Console client. The system also consists of a server and an administrative tool. The entire system will be named something different by the time Liquid publicly launches it, expected this June.

“What we’ve tried to do is bring together the best and most used features of IM and package them in a business friendly way,” Davis said.

The entire system consists of the client, a server that can be run on most Windows-based networks, and an administrative tool. All of Mercury’s components, though, are written in the Java language and can run on multiple platforms.

The contact list a user sees is completely centrally administered, meaning that if a company hires a new employee, the admin only needs to add that user and set up that user’s group memberships. At that point, the new hire will automatically have access to everyone they need to work with. “The idea is to allow people’s contact lists to reflect the company structure,” Davis said.

Also, employees can be either a member of a group or an “observer.” If a worker is an observer, they can see presence for that group and communicate with members of that group, but the group in question may not necessarily see the worker’s presence. “If a CEO wanted to see everyone but not be seen, he could be an observer of every group,” Davis said.

“We have found that having to add users manually is a huge disadvantage of most IM systems,” Samuels said. “A central contact list solves that problem. Generally, an organization would put users in 1 or 2 groups and have them observe the rest of the groups to have the ability to communicate with the entire company.”

One of the system’s unique features, according to Samuels, is MemoMessage, which “is a broadcast message that is more like an instant e-mail. It allows you to send an instant message to multiple people.”

On the server side, Mercury is targeted mainly at networks running Windows NT, 2000 or XP. Liquid decided to offer some Windows-specific features like running as an NT service, because its customers are most likely on those platforms. But the system is written in Java and will run on platforms that support it.

The company also has performed “limited testing” on Solaris and Linux. Davis says he sees Linux as an important part of Mercury’s value proposition because his system can run in a mixed environment, and Linux is “finding its way into all sorts of server environments, which just increases the benefit of a Java-based solution.”

Talk Amongst Yourselves

One of the hottest topics in the enterprise IM space is interoperability. Cerulean Studios, which publishes the popular Trillian cross-IM network client, is already interoperable with all of the major public IM networks. Cerulean has an ongoing battle with America Online, though, as the world’s largest online service has tried to block Trillian from using its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service. As of now, Trillian is still interoperating with AIM.

Now, Trillian may very well make its way to the enterprise IM space, a top company official told Instant Messaging Planet last week. And Trillian’s interoperability would be a major selling point for businesses.

For its part, Liquid finds interoperability to be a very exciting prospect in enterprise IM, especially as protocols like SIP and SIMPLE make their way into the market. Liquid is working on plans to migrate to those protocols in the near future.

But don’t look for Liquid to force its way into AIM or other services. “We don’t see outside access as one of the pieces of core functionality we want to have at the moment until there’s a standard,” Davis added.

In terms of market, Liquid Communications Systems will start off by targeting its product at small businesses at the moment — companies with 100 or fewer concurrent users. Specific types of firms will include law offices, accounting firms, manufacturing, high-tech companies and engineering firms. “We feel like that most of the big firms are targeting much larger companies than we’re aiming for,” Davis said. “We can provide our service that really fits their needs a lower price and with more customer service. Our customers are very important to us because we’re small so we’re going to treat them very well.”

Pricing has not yet been determined, but Samuels says a model has been determined: “We are going to charge a small base price for the server and then a per seat charge in blocks,” he said.

The Young Entrepreneurs

Both Davis and Samuels seem older than their years. But both readily admit that they’ve been learning a lot while on the job. They like the entrepreneurial community in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park, and plan on sticking around for the near term. “RTP has been a wonderful ecosystem for us to grow in,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for people like us to succeed.”

While the company started operations during the high-tech boom of the late 1990’s, both partners think that selling to a market in a recession won’t be as difficult, mainly because they plan on pricing their IM product on the low side. Davis thinks the market is getting better: “At least that seems to be where things are going. But we have the capacity to grow at reasonable rate so there’s no need for the economy, in my mind, to really be hot for us to succeed.”

“And companies will always need internal communication,” Samuels quickly added.

Spoken like an old tech pro.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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