Instant messaging, or IM, is the latest incarnation of online chat, which has been popular on the Internet with young people since a Finnish man created Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in 1988.
Instant messaging is instant gratification. Unlike with e-mail or online group discussions, there's no cooling your heals as you wait for responses to your typed-in comments, questions, jokes, insults or flirtations. You check to see if a pal is online and available, key in a "Wassup?" or its equivalent and you're chatting away.
The FCC's involvement in the merger underscores the fact that IM is also big business. Along with its more social aspects, IM can provide buttoned-down benefits for many organizations.
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Business use, until recently just a trickle, is expected to surge. IDC, an information technology market research firm in Framingham, MA, projects that the business IM market will grow 140 percent during each of the next five years, from 5.5 million users worldwide in 2000 to 180 million users in 2004.
Business use of IM has surprised a lot of people. "Instant messaging is a technology that nobody planned on," says Ken Orr, a researcher with the Cutter Research Foundation, an information technology research group in Arlington, MA. "Over the past two years people have realized they can use IM for a lot more than just chat."
Among the uses are:
• Mail-order companies are deploying IM for customer service to help prevent long telephone hold times.
• E-commerce companies are bolstering their Web sites with IM buttons so customers can immediately chat with a customer service representative rather than send an e-mail.
• Businesses in many industries are leveraging IM for collaboration.
• Universities are using it for distance learning.
To see IM in action, check out the Web site of the clothing retailer Lands' End (www.landsend.com). When you click on a "Lands' End Live" button, you can engage in text chat with a customer service rep or request that one telephone you.
The most popular IM software for consumers are two programs now owned by AOL: ICQ (pronounced, "I seek you"), which was created by a small Israeli company and is available for download at www.icq.com, and AOL Instant Messenger (www.aol.com/aim). Yahoo Messenger (messenger.yahoo.com) and MSN Messenger (messenger.msn.com) are also players. All are free.
Of the four, ICQ, which I've had the longest experience with, is the most comprehensive and provides the best tools for finding and organizing your contacts, setting up group meetings and protecting against unwanted contacts. Yahoo Instant Messenger is the easiest to get started with.
IM programs that specialize in business use include Lotus Sametime (www.lotus.com/sametime), Novell's Instantme (www.digitalme.com), QuickConference (www.prgrsoft.com), e/pop (www.wiredred.com) and Jabber (www.jabber.com). Businesses using these programs typically set them up on their own private servers rather than on public servers as with consumer IM programs. Costs typically range from $10 to $90 per desktop.
There's nothing stopping businesses from saving money by using free consumer IM products and public servers for business IM use. The pay products, however, offer considerably beefed-up security.
Instant messaging in general does have its downside, of course. Used indiscriminately, it can be a distraction and a time sink. Also, typing on a PC for most people isn't as convenient or as communicative as talking on the phone.
Unlike e-mail, IM programs don't typically provide an audit trail unless users manually save or print out each session. If you need a record of your communications, e-mail or other technologies are better choices.
Instant messaging also lacks the interoperability of e-mail. If you're using Yahoo Messenger, for instance, you can't communicate with someone using ICQ. AOL thus far has thwarted attempts by other companies to enable their IM products to communicate with AOL's. AOL cites security concerns, but most observers feel the company is trying to protect its market share.
The FCC's recent action, in the future at least, will force AOL to use open standards, which will help fuel IM's growth. Although IM probably will never replace e-mail, it could easily become as common.
Instant messaging is a new technology that has a wide-open future with wireless, voice and video among the many possible applications that could take off. "The best uses," says Orr, "haven't been thought of yet."
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.