Instant Messaging: From Toy into Tool

I remember the first time someone tried to persuade me of the business value of online chat. It was 1994, and a friendly bunch of entrepreneurs at a company called Ubique were touting a technology that allowed people to exchange not just text messages, but audio messages in real time.

As a proof of concept, Ubique’s executives arranged to have their product, Virtual Places, working in a couple of dozen booths of a major trade show in Atlanta. The idea was to extend the experience of the trade show to those sitting in offices in New York, Tokyo, and for that matter, Dubuque.

Like a lot of Internet services circa 1994, Ubique’s was pretty rickety. It wasn’t long before the company—short on cash and bereft of any real revenue stream—was selling itself to America Online, hardly the outfit to make good on Ubique’s strategy of reinventing chat as an industrial-strength business tool.

In the intervening eight years I hadn’t thought of Ubique again until last month, when I became aware of an emerging trend that has big companies deploying instant messaging for commercial purposes. I also learned that Ubique, having gone nowhere at AOL, was now owned by IBM and was a component of Sametime, IBM’s instant messaging system. Indeed, there’s no better leading indicator of the acceptance of instant messaging—the reason for the attention being paid to the technical underpinnings of Presence (see Primer, Baseline, April)—than the attempts both IBM and Microsoft are making to incorporate instant messaging into the software they sell. Both companies are addressing the drawbacks that have kept technology architects from simply deploying publicly run messaging systems like AOL’s or Yahoo’s. Those drawbacks include a lack of security, archiving and support.

At any rate, both IBM and Microsoft seem to have come by their enthusiasm for instant messaging honestly. Some 230,000 IBMers downloaded and began using the Ubique client after it became part of a pilot program there in late 1997. Technologists at Microsoft were so concerned about the bandwidth impact of instant messaging that they conducted an extensive network-assessment test after rolling it out to 50,000 Microsoft employees.

The Microsoft technicians needn’t have worried; the beauty of instant messaging lies precisely in its compactness. “It’s a very short little burst of text as opposed to an e-mail,” says Dave Stuttard, vice president of applications solutions at $13 billion electronics distributor Avnet, and a man who learned about instant messaging by watching his daughter use AOL Instant Messenger. Although few early adopters have calculated the exact benefit from reducing e-mail and its associated store-and-forward costs, they say such a benefit clearly exists. And the costs of deployment are minimal: Avnet’s instant messaging system, which is based on Sametime and may end up supporting as many as 6,000 users, will probably cost less than $100,000 to launch and half that to operate on an annual basis.

An even clearer benefit to instant messaging than reduced e-mail costs are reduced phone costs. Instead of playing phone tag, telecommuters and those working in remote offices can call only those people they see on a buddy list. Some companies even formalize the policy; IBM says a Sametime customer with offices in both North and South America now requires confirming instant messages to be exchanged before phone calls can be placed. “Instant messaging is evolving to be a bridge between multiple forms of communication,” says Sonu Aggarwal, an entrepreneur and patent-holder in enterprise messaging.

No one seems to have hard numbers on corporate use of instant messaging. A recent survey by Osterman Research puts the business penetration at 29%; Forrester Research says it’s 45%. Whatever the reality, it’s hard to see instant messaging becoming anything less than ubiquitous in corporations over the next five years. In that respect, the Ubique people were right from the start.