New IM service for business users launched

Five Across Inc. launched an instant messaging (IM) product for business users on Monday that the startup vendor hopes will be a workplace alternative to free, consumer-oriented, public IM services and pricey enterprise-class IM systems.

Five Across’s InterComm basic IM software can be downloaded and run for free over the vendor’s IM network, a model similar to the one adopted by providers of consumer-oriented, public IM services, such as America Online Inc.’s AIM, Yahoo Inc.’s Messenger and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Messenger. Additional features are available in InterComm Pro, a more advanced version of the software, which costs US$29 per end user.

Unlike consumer-oriented IM services, which are at their core geared toward casual use by individuals in a nonwork environment, the InterComm product contains a raft of workgroup features designed to allow business users to collaborate on documents, communicate and share files, said Kathy Englar, Five Across’ marketing director.

On the other end of the spectrum, enterprise-class IM systems are pricy and heavy on security and regulatory-compliance features for the IT department, but weak on features for business end users, a company executive said. “Our role is to redefine instant messaging” in the workplace, Englar said. That redefinition centers on the marriage of IM with workgroup/collaboration features, which is why Five Across refers to its approach as “workgroup instant messaging,” she said.

Some of InterComm’s key features are the ability for users to:

– send a message to multiple recipients, even if some of the recipients are offline;

– share documents and maintain control of changes and revisions in a central server-based repository;

– schedule meetings via shared online calendars.

“InterComm is something that fits a specific need,” said Genelle Hung, an analyst with The Radicati Group Inc. “It’s not a big, enterprise-scale collaboration (product) where you integrate (instant messaging) presence into everything. This is more project-based, where you need the IM immediacy to be focused on a specific thing. There is probably a certain kind of knowledge worker who would find this very useful. I don’t think this is something that would necessarily be deployed company wide, but for specific groups: engineering, human resources, for example.”

In InterComm, a user organizes the people in his IM list by different groups, based on the work relationship he has with them. Each group of InterComm users has what Five Across calls “assets” the members share in a central server-based repository, such as files, notes and schedules. “Everything in InterComm is built and organized around groups,” Englar said.

This architecture allows a user, for example, to only make himself available via the InterComm IM system to some groups and to appear offline to other groups at any given point, based on his work priorities at the time. “I think this feature is very valuable because a key issue that has made IM not as appealing in the workplace is that it’s interruption-driven,” Radicati’s Hung said. “I’m working at my desk on tomorrow’s newsletter and someone is sending me IM about a project due next year; that’s a big annoyance.”

Because it is unlikely that all members of a group will be online simultaneously at all times, particularly if they are located in different time zones, InterComm lets a user send a message to all members, whether they are online of offline, and delivers the message to offline users via e-mail, text message to a wireless device or through the IM system when the user logs on, Englar said.

InterComm also has a feature called group polling, in which a user poses a question to all members and gives them a list of possible answers to choose from in a multiple-choice format, an approach Five Across says increases the probability that every member will provide an answer than if the same question is posed via e-mail and respondents have to craft answers from scratch. InterComm also archives polls, notes and individual IM conversations.

The communications occur over Five Across’ IM network, and thus outside of firewalls. However, in the fourth quarter, Five Across will formally announce a server product that companies can buy to keep their IM communications inside their firewall, and thus with enhanced security, Englar said.

For regulatory compliance issues related to IM communications, at this point clients would have to buy a third-party product designed for these purposes, she said. InterComm doesn’t have voice conferencing or online meeting features, but adding these features isn’t out of the question, since Five Across is open to enhancing InterComm based on users’ feedback, she said. “We’ll go in the direction users want us to go,” Englar said.

“What they have done is taken the problem of interruptions and built their product around that. All the other pieces will come later. I think there will be a group of people that will find this product valuable and will use it,” Radicati’s Hung said.

Five Across, based in Palo Alto, Calif., was founded in November 2003 by Glenn Reid, who prior to founding this company had been director of engineering for consumer applications at Apple Computer Inc. where he was in charge of products such as iMovie and iPhoto, according to information on Five Across’ Web site. Reid began his career as a systems programmer at Adobe Systems Inc. in 1985. The company is backed by Granite Ventures LLC and Adobe Ventures LP, Adobe System’s venture capital affiliate.

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