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 software allows users to maintain a list of contactsgmdash;sometimes referred to as a buddy list—with whom they can exchange messages whenever both parties are online. These messages appear in a small window on the computer screen that both the sender and the recipient can see. The most popular IM utilities—such as America Online Instant Messenger (AIM), Microsoft MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger—also offer a number of other features, including chat rooms for groups to exchange messages and the capability to use voice communication and view streaming content over the Internet.
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 coworkers 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.
Most public IM utilities were created for personal use, however, which can create problems in a business setting. 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 in 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 conversations truly increase productivity or instead create a source of distraction for employees.
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 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.
With proper management, IM technology seems 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.
Laurie Collier Hillstrom
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