It’s only been a few years since e-mail became a necessity in the corporate realm. Yet already, our insatiable need for real-time communication is threatening the use of e-mail. Where is this threat coming from? The answer may surprise you.

META Group estimates that the number of “official” corporate instant messaging users (i.e., the ones that IT departments know about) will grow from 5 million now to 200 million in 2005. Microsoft, whose Exchange product helped lead to the success of e-mail as we know it, is staking its claim to the IM market share with Exchange 2000’s IM services. According to Microsoft, “Instant messaging…is poised to play a significant role as a business tool for organizations of all sizes.”

Let’s take a look at some of the features of Exchange 2000 IM, its advantages over public IM systems, and how IT departments can benefit from deploying it.

Why Exchange 2000 IM?
Of course, Microsoft did not invent instant messaging. Public IM service providers such as America Online (AOL) and Yahoo have long offered their version of instant messaging with their proprietary protocols and client software. So why Exchange 2000 IM in the corporate enterprise? Organizations seeking a viable IM service are being attracted to Exchange because it offers a number of desirable features. These include the following:

  • If you use public IM service providers, your conversation is spread across the Internet. But because Exchange 2000 is an internal IM server, network users and groups can participate in real-time, secure conversations generally free from unauthorized eavesdroppers.
  • Exchange 2000’s IM architecture allows companies to administer their own instant messaging infrastructure. Businesses can limit their users to instant messaging within the organization or allow users to send instant messages to other IM users across the Internet.
  • Exchange 2000 IM allows people to use the same corporate account they use to log on to their system and access their Outlook mailbox.
  • Real-time communication is achieved with coworkers individually or through a group discussion. All conversation threads sent and received in an instant messaging session appear in a scrolling history pane until the session is ended and can be logged.
  • Real-time sharing of files and documents can be achieved without the need for shared folders and assigning access permissions.
  • Exchange Instant Messaging Client Run-Time Components allow applications to provide instant messaging functionality when used with the Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service.
  • Exchange 2000 also supports third-party applications that allow enterprises to leverage its IM capabilities for real-time communications between businesses, customers, and partners.

What lies ahead?
While no one can predict the future of a given technology, it’s fairly safe to make some predictions about what lies ahead for IM in a Microsoft network. For starters, Exchange 2000’s IM technology will be integrated within many upcoming Microsoft products, including the SharePoint Server. This Real-Time Collaboration (RTC) server, which Microsoft is now developing, will unify the operating system-based collaboration features with voice, video, and instant messaging for delivery to any number of devices over any links. Microsoft also plans to include APIs for writing advanced instant-messaging apps in the upcoming Windows .NET Server.

There will always be a place for e-mail in the corporate realm, but Microsoft’s implementation of IM within Exchange 2000 will lead many more organizations to look closely at the advantages that true real-time collaboration offers. There will follow a corporate rush to implement IM to maintain a B2B and B2C advantage over competitors. In the near future, IM will be a business-critical application much like the telephone and e-mail are today.

Universal specifications will be created for mobile instant messaging and presence services. The specifications will be used for exchanging messages and presence information between mobile devices, mobile service, and Internet-based instant messaging services, all fully interoperable.

Getting the jump on IM
Little can be done to prevent the emergence of IM into the corporate world. Instant messaging applications such as AOL’s Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and MSN Messenger continue to appear on users’ desktops in ever-growing numbers. For most organizations, it is not a question of whether instant messaging will become a common communication medium but rather when. And, in fact, IM holds tremendous promise for collaborative communication in the enterprise. The key is to ensure that a safe, reliable implementation is put in place.

What can you do as an administrator to get a jump on IM? For organizations that have already deployed Exchange 2000, the groundwork has been laid. If time permits, start researching how your organization may best benefit from integrating IM into its current communication systems and conduct pilot programs to determine which IM features to implement and which ones to prohibit. Use this information to establish policies and procedures for the deployment and use of instant messaging in your company. Incorporate these policies and procedures into your acceptable use policy or IT manual before the technology is deployed.

The traditional “store-and-forward” messaging model of the e-mailing system lacks the instant communication many people are now looking for—and can now benefit from—in their electronic correspondence. Real-time collaborative applications, such as Exchange 2000 IM, are the newest category of tools that enable instantaneous collaboration in an organization.

IM combines the real-time conversation of a telephone call with the typed-message of an e-mail message. This represents an important new medium of interpersonal and interactive communication going forward, and IT departments can best take advantage of the medium and control it by implementing an internal IM server such as the one built into Exchange 2000.

In my next article, I will provide a detailed tutorial on how to set up an Exchange 2000 IM server.

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