Yahoo Extends IM to the Enterprise

The link between enterprise instant messaging (IM) and public IM just got a lot stronger.

Yahoo Inc. has introduced Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition, a business-strength product that the company says provides security, administrative control and integration with several portal software and directory service products. The new product also provides interoperability within Yahoo’s network of tens of millions of consumer IM users.

Besides bringing its IM to the enterprise, Yahoo’s move is significant to the company’s bottom line — it has been looking for ways to bring in additional revenues as the advertising market continues to be sluggish.

Although enterprise IM (EIM) vendors are targeting businesses, organizations and governments with their wares, it’s clear that those groups are relying primarily on the public IM networks. IDC last August said nearly 65 million workers are already using public IM — that number is expected to grow to 255 million by 2005.

One of the biggest objections that IT department heads have had about introducing public IM into the enterprise is the associated security risks that come with those networks. Yahoo’s new enterprise product has SSL-based encryption so that messages cannot be read by people other than the intended recipient. It also lets administrators block other IM clients and force the use of virus protection software for file transfers — the latter being an especially big concern for IT admins. The encryption works for messages that pass between Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition clients — even if one of the users is outside of the company.

Also, the Yahoo enterprise IM product authenticates users against an enterprise’s corporate directory. “You want to know that when you receive a message that the person sending it is who they say they are,” said Ken Hickman, director of product strategy for Yahoo’s Enterprise Solutions division, in an interview. The system uses e-mail addresses as screen names as the identity verification mechanism.

Speaking of controls, Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition also directly ties into a corporate directory to allow administrators to centrally manage, enable and disable users and their screen names — especially if they leave the company. Administrators can also enable and/or disable such client functions as file transfer and chat.

The new service gives enterprises interoperability with the Yahoo’s public IM network of more than 20 million users (Media Metrix Inc, August 2002). Presence is also supported throughout the Yahoo public IM network by the showing of a person’s corporate e-mail address. An employee is also able to link his or her corporate screen name to a personal Yahoo screen names, to both maintain pre-existing contact lists and to allow for remote access.

Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition also integrates with portal and business platforms from BEA Systems, Oracle, and TIBCO Software; it also ties into any LDAP-compliant directory, such as those from Novell eDirectory, the directory technology in Oracle9i Application Server, and Sun Microsystems’ SunONE Directory Server. The product integrates with security, logging and auditing products from VeriSign, IMlogic and FaceTime Communications.

The new enterprise IM software retains the functionality, and the familiar look and feel of the consumer Yahoo Messenger product, company officials said. But IT admins can customize the client’s buttons, tabs, links, text and icons used on the client user interface from one central configuration tool.

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Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo is starting a limited beta program for qualified customers, with shipment coming in the first quarter of 2003. No set limit of beta users has been set, but Ken Hickman, Yahoo director of product strategy for the enterprise solutions division, said the company is not conducting a wide beta on this product. He added that several Fortune 500 companies are participating in the beta.

When the enterprise IM product is launched, it will be priced at $30 per year per user, Hickman said, with all upgrades and support — especially “premium 24/7 support” — included in that price. Quantity discounts will be available.

“There’s a heck of a lot of use (of IM) between the hours of 9 to 5 by business users,” Hickman said. “We’ve researched that and translated it into the fact that business end users have already decided that IM is an essential productivity tool.”

“What this comes down to is adding the features that the IT, security and policy departments are really looking for to be able to allow them to standardize on a product,” he also said.

Is Hosting The Way to Go?

While Hickman would “never say never,” for now it looks like Yahoo will concentrate on hosting its EIM offering for companies, organizations and others. “Yahoo’s DNA, and what we do really well here, is hosted services,” he said. “We recognize that we’re not going to be able to do everything for everybody” with this approach, he pointed out.

“Right now, all of our research from our installed base of customers, our partners and a lot of the people that have really been demanding that we deliver this product shows that they want a hosted solution, as long as that solution gives them the type of security, control and integration that they would get from deployed software,” he also said.

The company will keep an close eye on the hosting vs. licensed question, though. It will move forward with hosted software if it can meet the needs of the broadest audience by offering it.

Interoperability With the Other Public IM Nets

While the new Yahoo EIM offering does connect with the Yahoo network, it does not provide interoperability — what Hickman called interoperability with a capital “I” — with the other major public IM networks of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and MSN Messenger from Microsoft. He said Yahoo as a company supports the concept of interoperability, and hopes to see it one day.

Getting to there from here, though, is another matter. Yahoo is keeping an eye on SIP and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE) as a possible vehicle to have interoperability with the other public IM networks. “It’s pretty heavily influenced right now by Microsoft, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “They (Microsoft) have a lot of muscle and developer tools.

One problem, though, is that SIMPLE is limited from Yahoo’s perspective. “It only contains about one-tenth of the functionality we need,” Hickman said. “It’s really basic messaging and presence. For example, a lot of features we have — the file transfers, our IMvironments (“skins” for the instant-messaging window), the PC-to-phone capabilities, the chat stuff — none of that is covered under SIMPLE at this point.”

Ultimately, Hickman hopes that products like Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition will drive the development of one standard, because of demand from the business and other communities that require strong EIM products with features like logging, auditing and encryption.

Being First

While both AOL and Microsoft are working on their own iterations of EIM software, Yahoo is the first out of the gate with a viable product for enterprises. According to Hickman, the “first” factor, though, isn’t always an advantageous one. “What we found is that as you go out and talk to companies within the Fortune 2000, a lot of them have already informally standardized on one of the big three, while some of them have a very mixed environment,” he said. “I don’t think that being out there first is really going to give anyone a benefit. I think that the end of the end of the day the only real early adopters (of EIM) are going to be the financial companies, and they’ve got some pretty heavy requirements,” in terms of regulations and rules they have to follow to use IM within their organizations.

“It’ll be interesting to see if any of us can actually deliver what they need,” he added.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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