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Can IM Graduate to Business?

by Jon Udell
12/20/2001

There has been a flurry of handwringing in the trade press about the surge of consumer-grade instant messaging in business settings. The litany of problems recited includes nonstandardization, port exposure, lack of message confidentiality, uncertain quality of service, lack of auditing and logging, subversion of knowledge management goals, and fracturing of attention spans. These problems, all quite real, are being addressed by business-grade IM solutions. But the conversation about business IM has so far had a largely negative cast, focusing more on what it isn't than what it is or should become. This week, I talked with some folks at Jabber and Groove Networks about a more positive vision for business IM.

I reached James Barry, who recently left CollabNet to became CTO of Jabber, Inc., in Salt Lake City, where he was attending an IETF meeting in order to push for standardization of Jabber's presence and identity protocols. If those protocols "can become three-letter acronyms," he says only half-jokingly, it would allay one of the concerns about Jabber adoption. The commercial version of Jabber also addresses quality-of-service concerns. It pools threads and is server-farm-ready, so a company that wants to make IM a large-scale intranet asset can snap in extra servers as needed to spread the messaging load. And it can do the auditing that banks, for example, require. At issue here isn't just logging messages, but also verifying their points of origin. Finally, commercial Jabber offers end-to-end SSL encryption (a feature also available in open source versions of Jabber, by the way).

But what clearly excites Barry is where Jabber is going, not where it has been. What drove business adoption of consumer IM was, after all, productivity. Every technology can be used well or badly, he points out. You can surf the Web to research your competitor, or to view pornography. It's the same with IM; messaging can be a distraction, but it can also minimize distraction, as when you use IM to avoid whispering in a meeting. Or consider file transfer: it's handy that you can transfer files using IM, but the procedure risks the same kinds of clutter and confusion that plague email attachments. Commercial Jabber offers an alternative: you can attach "by reference" rather than "by value," using WebDAV code built into the client and server to post a file to the server and transmit only an URL by way of IM.

Comment on this articleJabber and Groove offer more capabilities for file transfers, conversation tracking, and record-keeping than do free clients like AOL's instant messaging. But do they go far enough to make IM a serious business tool?
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"Things get really interesting," says Barry, "when presence becomes a 'follow-me' kind of thing." You might, for example, route messages through an SMS bridge in order to receive them on a cellphone, or arrange for your Jabber ID to follow you when you move from your office PC to a colleague's home PC. "We're working with location people on GPS solutions," he adds, "so it'll follow you wherever you go."

Living in Groove

Groove enhances IM for business use in all sorts of ways. Its shared spaces are wildly secure. Messages persist in those spaces, and work across the online/offline chasm. Presence, in Groove, is exquisitely granular. You know when your message is delivered, when it is received, and in some cases, even when it is read. The lack of such awareness in email causes endless trouble and heartache.

Perhaps the key point, though, is that Groove embeds IM in a collaborative context. "Before I came to Groove," says Don Dodge, the company's VP for Product Development, "I thought IM was a toy for teenagers, or for people to use in meetings when bored." Now, as part of a fully Groove-enabled culture, he sees things differently. Messaging in Groove is rooted in shared spaces that collect people, tools, and documents around common projects. That such an arrangement can dramatically rewrite the productivity equation isn't merely the opinion of Groove employees who have drunk the Kool-Aid. My friends in financial services tell me that Groove is an almost ideal environment for trans-corporate dealmaking. In contrast to the rigidity of collaboration using Web portal technology, Groove meshes well with the fast-paced, ad-hoc, multitasking world of high-stakes dealmaking. Deal guys are in perpetual motion, always cranking, and they can watch the presence indicators for their counterparts across a portfolio of active deals and use IM to keep all the plates spinning.

Groove isn't just a toolset that supports collaboration, but an environment that encourages best practices. With email foldering it's possible to organize messages and documents by project, but this is hard to do and impossible to keep coherent across multiple machines and varying personal information management strategies. There is also, in Groove, an appreciation for the natural flow of collaboration. An IM exchange might, or might not, lead to something more. When it does, you can capture the exchange in a shared space and bring other tools to bear -- a browser, a threaded discussion, a file archive. This effortless transition from casual to more formal interaction is the singular genius of Groove. It's hard enough to pull this off within a homogenous corporate IT infrastructure, since each additional mode tends to require action in a different administrative domain. It's extraordinary to be able to do it in an ad-hoc and yet secure way across corporate borders, as Groove can.

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Computer-mediated communication, while superior in some ways, is still a poor substitute for the face-to-face modes that we have evolved over thousands of years. What IM's popularity shows, above all, is that the impulse to communicate directly cannot, and should not, be stifled. That said, IM is computer-mediated, and as such is brought to us by folks who are typically more comfortable with packet protocols than with human protocols. I'm not worried about whether business IM can overcome the flaws of consumer IM. Those are engineering problems that we know how to solve. The real challenge -- for business as well as for personal use -- is to map anthropological and sociological habits and conventions into cyberspace, in useful and acceptable ways. Jabber and Groove are headed down that road, but it will be a long journey.

Jon Udell is an author, information architect, software developer, and new media innovator.


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