IM Making Strides; Interoperability Still Needed

BOSTON — During the U.S. military’s campaign in the Middle East, a headquarters commander was trying to coordinate a strike against an enemy bunker.

He contacted the pilot of a bomber flying over the target area and the captain of a submarine patrolling off the coast. In a 15-minute exchange, the officers addressed a technical problem and determined the appropriate ordinance needed. Armed with real-time information, the mission planner determined that the submarine was best-equipped and gave the order.

So what technology did the Department of Defense use to accomplish this? Microsoft’s MS Chat product.

“There were better live collaboration systems in place — but they didn’t interoperate,” said Paul Haverstock, an architect with the real-time collaboration business unit of the Redmond, Wash., software giant. “DoD had spent millions of dollars but the path wasn’t end-to-end.”

Haverstock, who delivered the opening keynote address here at Instant Messaging Planet Conference & Expo this morning, didn’t present the anecdote to showcase the successful use of Microsoft’s technology. Instead, he was pointing out a problem in the industry.

As IM moves into wider use in the corporate world, the largest roadblock to ubiquity and new applications remains the inability of the main commercial services — from Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! — to work together.

“It’s a matter of will, it’s not complicated. The only ones suffering are the businesses,” said Haverstock who previously worked on collaboration software at Lotus.

Microsoft is building its IM applications on SIP-SIMPLE standards, while some competitors use the Jabber/XMPP framework. There has been modest progress in cooperation but the delay is holding back development, Haverstock said.

Industry-watchers agree with Haverstock that that obstacles relate to business models, not technology. After amassing huge user-bases, IM providers are wary of the kind of churn that bedevils wireless phone carriers.

Despite this glaring shortcoming, enterprise customers are beginning to realize the business value of the presence and collaboration features that IM brings. Since employees are using consumer versions of IM anyway, bringing it in-house allows executives to have more control over the tool’s use and the security of the information transmitted through it.

At a time when new government regulations aimed at thwarting insider trading and accounting abuses mandate the capture of all electronic messages, this is an important factor.

Enterprises are also finding that their return-on-investment can come sooner than expected, Haverstock said. For example, a company that uses IM to check the availability of co-workers in overseas offices can cut long-distance phone bills significantly. If the person they are trying to reach is not in the office, a phone call that would only result in a voicemail on the other end, isn’t made. Or, the call is avoided altogether because the question is answered electronically.

Other improvements that will make IM more attractive to businesses include closer integration of IM applications with phone systems and enhancements to graphics that will allow for more productive sharing of information.

Speaking later today is Oracle’s Ramu Sunkara. Oracle, a database giant, is poised to enter the enterprise IM space in earnest — targeting the market for integrated collaboration suites now hotly contested by other major enterprise software players like Microsoft and IBM’s Lotus unit.

On the second day of the conference, AOL’s Edmund Fish will return as a keynote speaker. Under Fish, AOL has undertaken a number of important IM efforts during the past several months — including greater video integration, expanded compatibility with external IM communities, new consumer products, and moves to enable third-party developers to embed AOL Instant Messenger services in their applications.

Editor’s note: Instant Messaging Planet Conference & Expo is produced by the parent company of this Web site.

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