Enterprise IM lags behind expectations

Instant messaging (IM) has shed its image as a toy for teenagers and gained credence as a bona fide business tool. Yet, IM hasn’t become as important to companies as some people predicted it would more than a year ago.

“It’s growing up,” said Jeff Bundy, CIO at YMCA of the U.S.A. in Washington. “I think it’s just important to remember that it’s just one of the tools in the tool kit. Just like the telephone; it is a curse and a blessing.”

In a survey of 164 companies conducted March 12 to 18 by Osterman Research Inc. in Black Diamond, Wash., almost 30 percent of respondents said they officially use IM, and another 42 per cent said they would likely use it in the future. That figure is significantly lower than what Framingham, Mass.-based IDC projected about 18 months ago. In the fall of 2000, the market research firm estimated that 70 per cent of corporations would have installed IM software by now. In a survey of 72 corporations with more than 1,000 employees that IDC conducted at that time, only 6.9 per cent of companies said they had installed such software.

IDC won’t publish its latest statistics on IM usage until the end of next month, but last fall it said there were 18.5 million enterprise IM users in the United States. Optimism for use of the technology in business continues. Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said more than 70 per cent of all U.S. companies will use IM by next year.

Some vertical industries in particular benefit from the use of IM, said David Ferris, president of Ferris Research Inc. in San Francisco. He cited financial services, the military, education and legal services as key beneficiaries.

Some users agreed that IM is becoming an everyday business tool. Bob Palmer, vice-president of IT at Lenox Inc. in Lawrenceville, N.J., said he uses IM daily to communicate with his staff and better stay on top of IT projects.

At the YMCA, IM will be a critical tool for speeding up help desk response time and ending “the ping-pong matches with voice mail and telephone,” Bundy said.

Bundy’s 30-person staff supports the IT operations at approximately 500 of the YMCA’s 2,434 branches. Currently, he’s running a pilot deployment of an IM and collaboration tool from Groove Networks Inc. in Beverly, Mass., to improve IT help desk functions.

Despite notable success, IM continues to face hurdles. Some users are hesitant about rolling out IM for security reasons and because of the lack of archiving tools, Ferris said.

There are few products that archive instant messages, he noted, and the use of IM outside a corporate intranet can leave ports on the firewall open while the IM software seeks IP addresses.

One company, InGate Systems in Stockholm, has a new firewall appliance that lets Session Initiation Protocol-enabled messages securely move through without exposing the entire network. The Session Initiation Protocol is a protocol for initiating communications such as instant messaging and Internet conferencing.

Last week, Groove announced that it has a connector that can store IM session information in the document management software of Documentum Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif.