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ALTOM: Does instant messaging make business sense?

January 30, 2010

It’s ironic that the technologies that are meant to bring us closer together usually end up dividing us. Take instant messaging as an example. Right now on my computer I have four varieties, not counting Twitter. My wife is on Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN). I have colleagues on both Yahoo and Skype. Facebook also has one.

I’ve gone through several incarnations of messengers in the past, including the hoary old ICQ, which is still among us, albeit no longer at the top of the charts. None of these can talk to any of the others, thanks to proprietary protocols. And that doesn’t begin to exhaust the list of such software. The list bulks up even more when you add aggregator messengers that combine other messengers into one interface, and phone texting, which is a kind of instant messaging.

Messengers have been around in some form since the 1960s. The newer computers at the time were hooking users together in primitive networks, and one of the first jobs for a network was to make it simple to ask, “Where are we going for lunch?” With the invention of the Web, the market for messengers has exploded, and now there are dozens of different ones.

Why so many? Some of it is just in-group usage. Some of it is driven by whatever operating system you have on your computer; many won’t work on Macs, for example. Some of it is cachet. Some of it is feature set. Some are well-adapted to “smart phones.” Some offer voice communication. Some are more secure. Almost all are free. Only one— AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)—may blatantly call itself “instant messenger” because Time-Warner owns the service mark on it. Time-Warner, however, cannot stop the user population from using the term, and many do, including me.

As you might imagine, only a few have a great deal of market penetration. In my experience, Windows Messenger, Yahoo and Skype appear to have the bulk of the U.S. business world. ICQ, Google Talk and AIM appear to be hanging in there around the edges. Skype was actually conceived as a high-quality Internet phone client, and it fills that job description fairly well, but it’s also a good messenger. It handles voice better than Yahoo does. Google Talk is supposed to support voice, too, but I haven’t tried it.

An instant messenger is one of those technologies that seems silly until you start using it. There are already ways to get in touch with others, including cell phones and e-mail, but IMs provide another dimension. They allow for over-the-transom conversations at a distance. Field personnel can ask short questions of the home office, even between countries. Cubicle workers can query one another without leaving their chairs. If you’re busy at the moment, just ignore the incoming message until you’re ready to answer it. Or you can answer it while you’re on hold. Multi-taskers love the things.

Do IMs improve productivity? That’s tough to say. On the one hand, an IM facilitates snappy, short-term communication that otherwise would require lengthy walks or lost time getting back to the office. But on the other hand, an IM encourages chatter. On balance, it seems that IMs boost output, but I can’t prove it, and nobody else seems to have been able to, either.

One of the rubs to IMs is that you may have to employ two or three to get all your friends and co-workers connected to you, but there are remedies for that, too. Aggregators such as Trillian (www.trillian.im) and Pidgin (www.pidgin.im) let you read and write messages for a variety of IMs. The idea is that you need only one IM to consolidate all your various accounts. My own experience with this kind of messenger is mixed. I appreciate the eventual convenience, but setup is often laborious.

Some IMs are intentionally adapted to business use. BitWise IM has three levels of product: personal, plus and professional. Both plus and professional have encryption and are fee-based (www.bitwiseim.com). If your messages have sensitive information, it may be attractive to conceal them from possible prying eyes. Most of us don’t seem to worry about security on IMs much, and that confidence may be misplaced. I’ll let you know if somebody hacks into mine. It hasn’t happened yet.

Finally, there’s the question of whether you should let your employees decide which one to use, or if you should impose order and make them use only one on the job. In general, I favor the “wisdom of crowds” bottom-up approach. But I have seen cases where different departments chose different IMs, which left the employees companywide once again having to open and monitor multiple applications. Maybe the best approach is to just throw company support behind one of the aggregators like Trillian or Pidgin, and let the troops experiment.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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