If you want to learn about the future of a technology or a company, don’t just look at what the workforce is doing these days—look at the future workforce.

After watching my teenager devour a game called The Sims a few months ago, I bought stock in the company that makes the product and made a tidy profit by holding it for six months while literally millions of other teens drove the stock price ever higher with their adoption of the program. I believe the “next big thing” for these users, who devour technology as quickly as it appears, is the use of carrier-grade instant messaging (IM) solutions from Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL.

Industry experts estimate that over 200 million people now use IM, and pundits expect that number to reach 500 million by 2006. It’s catching on in the corporate environment as technology planners recognize the potential for enabling faster communication and creating more opportunities for ad hoc discussions between employees and external partners. The application becomes even more powerful when combined with features like document sharing, whiteboarding, and graphics.

Yet quite a few enterprises are still either blocking access to external IM services due to security concerns, or they don’t have an internal infrastructure to support the technology.

The security scenario
The same corporate tech planners who recognize the need for and benefits of IM cite the lack of security as a critical factor in preventing it from being successful in a corporate environment.

Microsoft researchers estimate that over 30 percent of businesses now use some form of insecure IM capability. Research firm IDC estimates that 70 percent of corporate employees use either business IM or consumer IM services for work-related activities. Still, e-mail remains the only consistent, reliable, secure collaborative tool for most enterprises. But that will change in the next 12 months.

Before corporations will use IM regularly, they need secure, archivable, and auditable real-time capabilities. Current IM products from AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo are easily hacked. The intellectual property generated by conversations that take place over these channels cannot be automatically saved. And without the ability to audit the services, companies have no way of managing the flow of information and protecting trade secrets from escaping through the IM channels.

IBM recently shipped new copies of its enterprise-class IM products, Sametime and QuickPlace. And third-party vendors, including IMlogic and FaceTime Communications, offer add-on products that promise to increase the security and archiving capabilities in current IM implementations.

FaceTime recently announced support for MSN Messenger, giving Microsoft a source for tools that will help customers protect their investment in the use of Microsoft IM networks. The agreement between Microsoft and FaceTime will allow IT pros to deploy strategic IM business applications.

The next-generation IM
Microsoft believes that the most reliable way to present IM as an enterprise-class collaboration platform is to base it on new security features planned for Windows .NET Server and Titanium, the next release of Exchange.

Microsoft has a new initiative, Greenwich, which is designed to include both presence and IM capabilities in the base operating system. Microsoft announced at its recent Exchange conference that it would be decoupling IM from its conferencing server product and moving it into the base operating system next year. Once delivered, Greenwich will allow developers to build applications that use presence information to deliver IM, voice, video, and data sharing collaboration applications in the enterprise.

AOL also plans to release a corporate version of its popular AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) product that includes encryption and IT administration capabilities.

But IBM clearly isn’t sitting on the sidelines while Microsoft and AOL move to make IM capabilities ubiquitous. IBM is working to integrate its existing Sametime and QuickPlace collaboration tools with its WebSphere architecture. Although AOL has more AIM users today than other IM vendors, they’re mostly consumer users. Corporate users are much more likely to adopt a real-time communications platform that has a development platform directly tied to it—either Microsoft’s .NET platform or IBM’s J2EE-based WebSphere platform.

The emergence of IM standards
Although AOL has resisted the creation, use, and support of IM standards, neither IBM nor Microsoft can afford to develop IM platforms in a vacuum. Both intend to use emerging Web services standards so developers can create enterprise applications that take advantage of the real-time communications and presence awareness technology.

The industry is moving toward a common standard called Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). A related protocol, SIMPLE, (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) is getting wide vendor support. IBM’s Sametime already uses SIP, and Microsoft has pledged future support for SIMPLE in its Greenwich products.

As the industry coalesces around accepted standards, developers will be able to write applications and code business processes that use presence and real-time communications sessions. The end result is that real-time collaborative activities will be integrated into standard business processes just as postal mail, the telephone, the fax, and e-mail have been.