Instant Messaging Moves into the Enterprise

With the release later this year of Microsoft's Real-Time Communications (RTC) Server 2003, the company will fulfill a long-term vision to bring text, audio, and video-based chat capabilities to the enterprise. The idea of Instant Messaging (IM) at work might sound foreign or even unwanted to some people, but this kind of realtime communication is increasingly a business necessity. If Microsoft is betting right, the company might have another hit on its hands. And for corporations looking to save money by making their employees more connected--not only internally but with partners and customers--RTC Server could be a godsend.

IM has been around since the mid-1990s when enterprising small developers brought products such as PowWow to market. These early IM tools were basically GUI versions of the UNIX talk utility that offered realtime text-based chatting, but over the years companies such as ICQ and AOL jumped on board, adding features and expanding the market. Microsoft entered the IM market with MSN Messenger, which users could also use to exchange files. And over time, the company sought to overcome various competing IM formats by creating the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which Windows Messenger (Windows XP's IM client) and later versions of MSN Messenger use. With these and other modern IM products, users can perform audio and video chats in addition to the more standard text-based chats. But SIP is also at the center of an interesting communications revolution. For example, you can use the SIP-based MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger clients to initiate compatible online games.

With the proliferation of IM across the Internet, people naturally have begun using it at work to communicate not only with friends and family but also with coworkers, partners, and customers. However, most of today's IM clients aren't secure, they don't offer any automatic-logging capabilities, and they're difficult to manage. In fact, many businesses have outlawed IM at work, with many administers assuming that IM tools are just for teenagers. That's not the case, but a lack of enterprise-friendly features has limited IM's appeal in businesses.

But IM fills an interesting niche. Today, many important meetings are face-to-face, and many people spend most of their day conducting business over the phone. However, email has taken a slice out of telephone communications because users can store email messages and email is often less disruptive than face-to-face or telephone meetings. An IM message is similar, but even less disruptive than email, especially when you just need a quick yes or no answer.

To address IM's security, logging, and manageability needs, Microsoft's RTC Server will provide the features that enterprises require to trust IM as a vital business tool and add other useful functionality, such as presence information. In the first version of RTC Server, "presence" simply means whether you're online. In future versions, the server will be able to determine your connection information, such as what type of device you're using (e.g., a cell phone, which would necessitate smaller messages) and how fast your connection is (so that an IM partner won't try to send you large files over a slow connection). At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in New Orleans this week, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates showed a prototype PC called Athens in which your presence information could be listed as "on the phone," "in a meeting," or "do not disturb."

RTC Server and other enterprise IM solutions will eventually change how many people do business, in much the same way that other technologies, such as cell phones, electricity, and air conditioning, did so in their day. For example, even if your boss is in a meeting you wouldn't consider physically interrupting, you might be able to use IM to make a quick yes-or-no request. Or consider the convergence of devices such as cell phones and PDAs with IM and other forms of wireless messaging: Using IM to answer a question might be easy in many situations in which a phone call would be impossible or awkward.

Microsoft's RTC Server won't be the only enterprise IM solution, but by creating such a product, the company seems to be stamping the technology with its approval. Say what you will about Microsoft, but by entering this market, the company essentially is owning up to the fact that enterprise IM is an emerging and crucial business, a move that will make many businesses take notice. Microsoft's effect on the market is similar to the effect Dell Computer wields in the hardware marketplace: When Dell entered the PDA market late last year, the company quickly grabbed 19 percent of the market, but more astonishingly--given PDA sales of late--actually caused the PDA market to grow year-over-year at a much higher rate than it would have grown otherwise. Microsoft's endorsement of enterprise IM likely will have a similar effect.

To support customers, Microsoft is also releasing an RTC software development kit (SDK) so that developers can create business-specific IM solutions on top of RTC Server, and an RTC add-on for Windows Server 2003 so that enterprises can host these applications on servers that aren't running RTC Server (you'll still need one or more RTC Server systems on the network). On the client side, a new version of Windows Messenger will work with the Microsoft .NET Passport service that MSN Messenger uses, the Microsoft Exchange Server IM service, and the SIP-based RTC Server. MSN Messenger will continue as the company's consumer offering but will support only Passport.

So I'm curious whether you're using enterprise IM now or have plans to do so. And if not, why?

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