I'd like to put in a kind word for one of the most underused tools in business. It lets you stay in contact with lots of others online, send and receive files, make phone calls, keep in touch with things at home, and even hold Web videoconferences, after a fashion.
It's known generically as "instant messaging," but you may know it under any number of trade names: MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, AIM and many others. I use both MSN and Yahoo, MSN mostly for personal, and Yahoo because most of my professional contacts use it. Technically, I understand that AOL (which is owned by Time) has a trademark on the term "instant messenger," so other vendors had to skirt that popular term when they named their own software.
Messengers are, of course, great for quick-shot discussions. Double-click on a contact, and write something like, "Hays statement of work-done?" The contact can just type back "done and sent." No need to confer further. Sound-bite business communications. I use messengers even if the recipient is just a few yards away. They can respond at their own pace. I know people who keep up to a half-dozen messenger windows open at one time, flicking between them. I'm not sure the conversations are very good, but it looks terribly productive.
Messengers work all over the globe, wherever Internet connection can be found. They work well on mobile devices, too, but I don't like thumbing on those tiny little keyboards. You can also invite others into your type-a-thon, creating a sort of textual conference call. You can send files to your contacts, if only one at a time, and only while you're online with them. Supposedly you can do videoconferencing, but I haven't tried that. You can talk by voice, too. More on that in a moment.
The major problem, of course, is that Yahoo doesn't talk with MSN, which doesn't talk to AOL, and so forth. I have both MSN and Yahoo open at any given time, and I live in dread of picking up another contact who uses yet another vendor.
There are third-party aggregators that are supposed to make all the major types play nicely together. Trillian (www.ceruleanstudios.com) is one of them. There are two versions, basic and pro. Generally speaking, the only major difference is that basic doesn't support video. Pro does, and costs $25 as of this writing. I've heard and read good things about Trillian, but I have to confess that when I downloaded and tried it a version or so back, setup was formidable enough that I just went back to using two messenger applications.
One of my favorite new tricks is using Yahoo Messenger as my telephone. It's particularly handy when calling somebody else using Yahoo. The call is free, because it goes computer-to-computer right through the Internet. It's known as an "IP" phone (for Internet protocol). I have a headset with a microphone dangling from my computer, and when I need to talk with another Yahoo user, I just fire up Yahoo and make the call. Both of us have to be online and have Yahoo open for it to work, and have a microphone and speaker available. For a small prepaid sum, you can make calls through Yahoo to real phones, for 1 cent per minute. I hold a lot of online phone meetings, and Yahoo is a big savings over cell minutes.
However, Yahoo voice has a rather severe drawback. It takes Yahoo voice some five or 10 seconds to settle down and stop sounding like a cell call from a coal mine. That's forever in voice time. I usually warn people that I'll be calling from Yahoo voice, and that for a few seconds my voice may not be audible. It does the same thing computer-to-computer. Once the connection is established, it's remarkably clear.
Unfortunately, messengers encourage users to tighten up their language almost to the point of absurdity. Even business colleagues succumb to the occasional "LOL" from time to time. And exchanges can drag on interminably if the conversation is too complex for text, but neither party is yet willing to just pick up the phone and call. There's something of a challenge about conducting a messenger session of 10 or 15 minutes. You think that the next two or three exchanges will finish the job, but it still goes on and on. Big companies can have their own internal enterprise messengers, too. Lotus and Microsoft have well-known products.
One thing to keep in mind is that, aside from the enterprise products, messengers aren't secure. It's easy to drift into the habit of sending sensitive information through messenger conversations, but it's not recommended.
Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.