Instant messaging, once a novelty used primarily in home computing, is now making major inroads in many businesses. Here’s a look at what is driving the growth of IM in the workplace and how IM can provide valuable business functionality, including applications beyond simple text messaging.

A big increase for the big three
Three of the main IM players—AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger—saw an increase in use in the U.S. workplace last year of 110 percent, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, a leading Internet research and analysis firm. Business use of IM rose from 2.3 billion minutes to 4.9 billion minutes. The number of people using IM in the workplace rose 34 percent, from 10 million to 13.4 million in the same period.

Each of these three players saw an increase in usage. AOL was up 17 percent to 8.8 million users, MSN Messenger was up a whopping 88 percent to 4.8 million users, and Yahoo! Messenger almost matched that phenomenal growth with an 83 percent increase to 3.4 million users.

Statistics aside, what benefits have these 17 million found in using IM in the workplace? When online chat was confined to text messaging alone, I never quite grasped the utility of it. Sure, it was handy for connecting with another home user who had a tendency to keep his or her only phone line tied up with an Internet connection. But in a business environment, it always seemed more efficient to simply walk over to someone’s office when we needed to talk.

However, today’s IM applications are a far cry from those early text-only novelties, as they have essentially taken on the mantle of a desktop conferencing application.

Putting IM to work
IM still begs the question, “What’s it good for in the workplace?” If you continue to look at IM as a vehicle for text-only chat, the answer is, “Not much.” But the capabilities of today’s IM applications go well beyond that and so do its potential uses. Let’s say your company has offices in other geographic locations, and you spend a respectable amount of your time on the phone with coworkers in those other offices. Long distance phone charges can mount in a hurry, particularly if any of those offices are located overseas. IM can provide a valuable communications solution in this scenario.

With the use of the “voice chat” features available in many of today’s IM suites, you can even have the equivalent of a speakerphone conversation using IM. This type of Voice over IP (VoIP) application is a good example of one of the many technologies that have become much more feasible and user-friendly with the proliferation of high speed Internet. Voice chat over most dial-up connections provides mixed results at best, and often it isn’t worth the effort. With broadband, however, you can achieve excellent audio quality that rivals (or even surpasses) that offered by most of the world’s phone systems. So rather than pick up the phone and dial Hong Kong, you grab your mouse and start a voice chat session. Figure A shows one IM user inviting another to have a voice chat in MSN Messenger.

Figure A

You can even bring in multiple parties to a voice chat, and you can do all of this without paying for phone charges. You don’t need a lot of expensive audio conferencing equipment, either. You need only a computer with a microphone, speakers, and a high-speed Internet connection. Another benefit to using this feature is that you don’t tie up company phone lines, which is a potential boon for a small business that needs to make do with a limited number of lines.

Many of today’s popular IM applications support video conferencing, so not only can you speak with your coworkers and clients, but you can also see them. The benefits of video conferencing really depend on your business and the value you attach to being able to see the other people in the conference. Overall, it can bring a more personal touch to electronic communications. Figure B shows an example of a video chat using Eyeball Chat.

Figure B

However, video conferencing is one area where there remains room for improvement in IM services. Even with a broadband connection, getting smooth video and reasonably fast frame rates is difficult, particularly if you throw in other collaboration features that can also soak up available bandwidth. Nevertheless, I expect video quality on IM services to improve enough in the near future to rival dedicated video conferencing systems.

Today’s IM applications don’t stop at text chat and audio/video conferencing. File sharing is another handy IM feature. Let’s say that you need to quickly share a document with a coworker in another location. You could send the document by e-mail, but the message is subject to delivery lag time and workload of the e-mail servers involved. Although messages generally get routed fairly quickly, a heavily loaded server or failure can slow down e-mail for hours or longer. With IM, you can transfer the file right away and not worry about lag time. Figure C shows a file transfer window in MSN Messenger.

Figure C

IM also offers application sharing, which can be valuable during conferencing and can be a great feature for providing technical assistance. Application sharing can even go one step further and offer remote control features that allow you to access an application on a remote user’s desktop to share information, fine-tune a document or presentation, or help resolve a technical question. Figure D provides a look at the MSN Messenger options for application sharing.

Figure D

Although you can get remote control features with Windows XP’s Remote Assistance or third-party applications such as pcAnywhere or VNC, the IM solution is more attractive for most users because the applications are free and generally easier to set up and use. In addition, all your other collaboration features are built in and available in a single application. That means you can easily have a chat while you share an application or document.

Even the text-only component of IM has uses in the business world. Let’s say you’re negotiating a big sale or a new contract on a conference phone call with both a coworker in another location and an important client. You and your coworker can exchange information and strategize in real time through IM while you carry on the phone conversation.

Text chat also has important uses within the organization when you need to communicate quickly with coworkers. For example, you might be in a meeting or presentation but someone on your staff needs you to act on an issue right away. You can communicate through IM without disrupting the meeting, something that probably wouldn’t be feasible with video or audio chat.

Final word
Don’t forget to factor security into the picture when you’re looking for an IM solution. By their nature, public IM services are not terribly secure. If you’re going to be chatting about sensitive information or passing around proprietary secrets, public IM might not be the best choice. You can instead choose an in-house solution that enables you to lock down access and use technologies such as VPNs and/or IPSec to secure your IM traffic. In my next article, I will look at how you can select that best IM solution for your organization.