Instant messaging (IM) is a general term encompassing a variety of software applications that enable users to have real-time text conversations, play turn-based games, and share pictures, music, and data files over the Internet. IM is quickly replacing e-mail as the preferred method for rapid communication both within and without the corporate community. IM software allows users to maintain a list of contacts—sometimes referred to as a buddy list—which they can use to exchange messages whenever both parties are online. These messages appear in a dialogue box on the computer or mobile device screen that both the sender and the recipient can see. The most popular IM utilities—America Online Instant Messenger (AIM), Microsoft MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and Google Chat—offer a number of other features, including chat rooms, voice communication, and streaming content capabilities.
While each different IM utility is proprietary, they all work on a client-server model. Client software resides on the user's computer and connects with a central server. Users open an IM session by logging into their account on the server. The server makes a record of the Internet address of the user's computer, then calls up the user's buddy list and checks to see who else is online. Once this information is provided to all connected clients, the buddies can exchange messages directly in real time.
IM has exploded in popularity since ICQ, the first free, public instant-messaging utility, was introduced in 1996. Many fans of IM took the technology to work with them, downloading IM client software onto corporate computer networks and using it as a tool to facilitate business communications. IM offers both advantages and disadvantages in the workplace. Proponents claim that it boosts employee productivity by allowing them to get immediate answers from co-workers and suppliers. Sales personnel and help desk technicians, in particular, find that it enables them to serve customers more effectively. Businesses can also use IM to conduct virtual meetings and facilitate collaboration on group projects. “Backers say IM, once dismissed as a plaything for the under-twenty set, dramatically speeds up the flow of information in and out of a company,” Esther Shein wrote in CFO. Google Chat, made available in the Google apps bundle in 2006, offers possibly the most user-friendly model for the workplace.
Most public IM utilities were created for personal use, which can create problems in a business setting. But most importantly, IT managers emphasize that public IM is not a secure form of communication. “When a user carries on a discussion with the person in the cube right next to him, if it's not a corporate IM utility, the message doesn't go from one computer right next door to the other one,” network security consultant Dan Wooley explained on InstantMessagingPlanet.com. “It goes out of the corporate network and across different networks and then back to the other person's desk.” As a result, anyone with access to the networks in between can intercept message traffic, potentially exposing confidential business information. IT managers also point out that the major public IM clients do not provide monitoring, virus protection, encryption, or other features usually associated with corporate IT applications. Finally, some business managers question whether IM truly increases productivity or instead creates a source of distraction for employees. How productively IM is used varies from one place of work to the next.
Despite such potential problems, however, many businesses are reluctant to block IM for fear of alienating employees who rely upon it. Instead, businesses have increasingly sought to manage its use through enterprise instant messaging (EIM) solutions. One approach involves implementing a software application called an IM gateway, which can intercept, log, and approve communication that takes place through the corporate network using public IM systems. Other companies choose to develop their own in-house IM systems, which can be designed to include such features as user authentication, network security, virus and spam protection, message encryption, and message archiving. Logging and archiving of messages is particularly important in light of Securities and Exchange Commission rules that require companies to retain electronic correspondence that divulges key corporate information.
Some IM applications available on the Internet are moving away from the notion that they have to be engineered with all work and no play in mind. Applications on sites such as Twitter.com and other IM services (like the MySpace.com messenger) are geared more toward simply checking in from time to time. And while some more progressive companies may use a network like Twitter.com to establish regular check-ins, the predominance of messages on these types of networks are purely for entertainment and social value.
With proper management, IM technology is likely to play an important role in future business communications. “Instant messaging is just one of a whole Swiss Army knife set of tools that will be used to conduct business,” Nate Root of Forrester Research stated in CFO. As one application under an umbrella of collaborative methods that can be used by several people at once (such as company-wide Web accessible calendars, domain management software, and security tools), IM is the method by which all other telecommuting tools are managed by groups and their administrators. The newfound ability to tele-collaborate, or communally manage projects and day-to-day business via multiple locations, is a trend brought on by IM that will shape the new face of business tomorrow.
SEE ALSO Communication; Handheld Computers
Bird, Drew. “Managing IT's Role in Business.” Instant Messaging Planet July 2003. Available from: http://www.instantmessagingplanet.com/enterprise/article.php/2235591.
Heck, Mike. “A Chat Checklist for IT Managers.” InfoWorld 26 August 2004.
Lindsell-Roberts, Sheryl. “135 Tips on Email and Instant Messages: Plus Blogs, Chatrooms, and Texting,” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Orzech, Dan. “Under IT's Radar, Instant Messaging Invades Corporate Desktops.” Instant Messaging Planet 14 July 2003. Available from: http://www.instantmessagingplanet.com/enterprise/article.php/2234871.
Shein, Esther. “Will IM Pay? Backers Say Instant Messaging Will Revolutionize the Way Businesses Work.” CFO May 2004.
Spanbauer, Scott. “A Grown-Up's Guide to Instant Messaging.” PC World March 2004.
Tyson, Jeff. “How Instant Messaging Works.” HowStuffWorks.com Available from: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/instant-messaging.htm.
in·stant mes·sag·ing (abbr.: IM) • n. Comput. the exchange of typed messages between computer users in real time via the Internet. DERIVATIVES: in·stant mes·sage n.
How do teens stay connected in the e-universe? Some turn to instant messaging services provided by ISPs such as America Online. The service allows users to create buddy lists, which will then tell users if their "buddies" are online and presumably available to exchange messages. Cellular phone technology helps teens check their buddy list even while they are away from their home computers.