Microsoft preps MSN Messenger for enterprises

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday will introduce a service for corporate customers that will allow users to extend and manage their MSN Messenger instant messaging capabilities across the firewall and help Microsoft play catch-up with rivals in the instant messaging market.

MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises, which is expected to ship before April 1, 2003, will offer auditing, logging and management features required by corporations that are increasingly looking to use IM as a communications tool.

The service will offer a namespace that integrates Passport identifications and corporate IDs stored in Active Directory to facilitate centralized IT user administration. Today, Passport identifications are managed individually.

Additionally, Microsoft will offer corporations the chance to purchase a unique namespace on the MSN service, which would allow a company to use its own name for its instant messaging identity. For instance, IT World Canada could buy the namespace “@ it world canada”.

The service is a precursor to the sort of enterprise instant messaging features Microsoft plans to introduce with its real-time communications server for instant messaging, voice and video code-named Greenwich, which is expected to ship in the middle of next year.

Connect for Enterprises will be offered on a yearly subscription basis starting at US$24 per user with volume discounts down to US$12. The subscription includes the licensing, connectivity, namespace and ID control, and premier support.

“We are providing the enterprise with a variety of management tools to use instant messaging with external customers,” says Larry Grothaus, lead product manager for MSN.

As part of the service, users will have to deploy a third-party gateway from IMLogic Inc. or FaceTime Communications Inc. for managing IM traffic. Microsoft has asked those vendors to integrate the Passport application-programming interface into their products so that Active Directory can be linked with the Passport service. The gateway will listen for the MSNMP instant messaging protocol and log those conversations. Users will have to run Windows 2000 and SQL Server 2000 to support the logging and auditing features.

Microsoft is reacting to the intense popularity of instant messaging and its grass roots explosion in corporations, where network executives are scrambling to manage its use.

Instant messaging is used either sanctioned or unsanctioned in 84 per cent of companies with that number expected to climb to 93 per cent in 12 months, according to a September survey of 196 respondents by Osterman Research Inc. That same survey showed that 60 per cent of company’s use America Online Inc.’s Instant Messenger, while 50 per cent use MSN Messenger and 45 per cent Yahoo Messenger.

AOL last week offered its own AIM Enterprise Gateway for companies looking to manage its IM service. In October, Yahoo Inc. said it also would offer enterprise support for its IM service.

All of the providers are looking for ways to generate revenue from their IM services, which are free and have taken off like wildfire.

“I see this as mainly a reaction to AOL,” says David Ferris, president of Ferris Research. “Businesses want to use IM to communicate with customers and right now they are doing that with AOL and MSN. Corporations need to control that interaction.” Microsoft said its offering trumps AOL’s in a number of places.

“We have experience with enterprise customers and consumers, and we have a support infrastructure in place for enterprises,” says Peter Ollodart, director of MSN strategic partnerships for Microsoft. “And we have Greenwich, which is built for the enterprise.”

While Connect for Enterprises may define Microsoft’s battle with AOL, Greenwich is Microsoft’s attempt to play catch-up in the enterprise instant messaging market to chief rival IBM/Lotus Sametime, whose platform is used by 70 per cent of corporations that have standardized on a product, according to Osterman Research.

Microsoft will integrate a version 2 of Connect for Enterprises with Greenwich, which will run atop the forthcoming Windows.Net Server 2003, late next year to provide management and security features for IM.

Microsoft officials say Connect for Enterprises version 2 will ship after Greenwich and have a translation engine that works between MSN and the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) supported in Greenwich that will allow any SIP client to talk to anyone on an MSN buddy list. The Windows Messenger client that ships with Windows XP supports SIP.

SIP is a signaling protocol for use with applications that support voice and instant messaging.