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Technology Corridor

The instant messaging wildfire spreads to the utilities industry.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 15 2003

would be a mistake, in Perlstein's view, because it would inhibit IM adoption and deny the enterprise the entire range of IM functionality that has fueled its virus-like growth.

Both Perlstein and Elfenbaum say that the knee-jerk reaction of companies to severely limit IM access is very reminiscent of the early days of e-mail. Eventually, companies saw the value in allowing employees to reach out to those outside the company. They predict the same will happen with IM, but probably much more quickly than it did with e-mail-in maybe 12 to 18 months' time.

While no single IM use adds dramatically to organizational efficiency and productivity, it's important to keep in mind that small percentage improvements can make a tremendous difference to a company overall, Elfenbaum says. Much like e-mail has improved the operations of most companies, so too can IM. FWIW.

IM 101

IM is a cousin to e-mail-a very fast cousin. Rather than traveling over servers, the free, so-called "public" versions (available from AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN, among others) send text communications directly between two or more computers. That translates into about four seconds from sending to receipt, making IM a nearly real-time communications vehicle.

The speed of the medium has created a growing lexicon of abbreviations and acronyms, to facilitate the fast, free-wheeling chats. "Four" becomes "4," "u" replaces "you," and "ctn" stands for "can't talk now"-useful when a deadline looms. (A nice lexicon is available at

IM's tiny window size on the screen-only a few inches of space on the desktop-belies its enormous functionality. In addition to sending messages, IM users can also send files and pictures. One of the key features of IM is the ability to see who is online and available for a conversation. Through the so-called "buddy list"-AOL's term, but often used generically-a user can see which correspondents are online, and which are not. Buddy lists typically are created by the user; once the user knows a buddy's "handle," she can add that name to her list of co-workers, family, or other categories. Users can also post an "away" message to let potential correspondents know when they plan on returning to their desks.

In addition to the public versions, IM is also available in enterprise installations. Enterprisewide installations of IM offer security features such as encryption, and control over many aspects of IM, including message logging, filtering, and permissions. IBM offers Lotus Sametime, and AOL is beta testing its AIM Enterprise Gateway product. The other public version companies are also expected to offer enterprise products in the near future.

One of the pitfalls of IM, at the moment, is that the various services are not interoperable. That is, someone using AOL's service cannot IM users of Yahoo! Messenger, for example.

The problem is not a lack of ability to connect the different versions, but a lack of willingness on AOL's part to allow access to its huge database of users-about 80 percent of the IM market.

Programs such as Trillian link all three services together in one window, rather than requiring a