Microsoft Plans New Inroads into Enterprise IM

Coming on the heels of AOL and Yahoo!, Redmond's efforts are expected to segue into its larger, upcoming Greenwich initiative.
Microsoft Corp.'s MSN unit is preparing what will likely be the initial stage in the software giant's play for the enterprise instant messaging market.

Dubbed MSN Messenger Connect, and slated for launch next quarter, the product provides for company-controlled "namespaces," so a business can administer its own instant messaging usernames.

That means that a company can provide an MSN username unique to each employee -- so John Smith won't have to adopt a handle like "Jsmith2214" thanks to the dozens of John Smiths throughout the world who are also using MSN. Instead, the system offers a simpler naming convention: John Smith would likely appear as "John Smith" to IM users inside the company, and "John Smith @ BusinessName" externally.

The namespace features also can be mapped to corporate e-mail directories, such as Active Directory. This simplifies IT departments' administration of employees' Internet communications, and ensures only that authorized workers can use IM from inside the company -- a system known as federated authentication, which also guarantees that "John Smith @ BusinessName" is who he says he is. Connect also is likely to include a way for MSN users inside a company to link their business usernames to their public MSN accounts.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's introduction of Connect comes just a week after the unveiling of rival America Online's own offering, the Enterprise AIM Gateway, which is also set for launch in first quarter.

Like its competitor, MSN Messenger Connect hinges heavily on technology developed by software startups that specialize in the management, logging and archiving of corporate instant messaging sessions. In the case of MSN Messenger Connect, the product is compatible with partners that, at launch, include FaceTime Communications and IMlogic. Foster City, Calif.-based FaceTime also developed the technology that provides management, archiving and auditing tools to the Enterprise AIM Gateway.

While Enterprise AIM includes embedded FaceTime technology, MSN Messenger Connect must be used in tandem with either FaceTime's or Boston-based IMlogic's stand-alone products. In such a configuration, it becomes a gateway for corporate IM use -- controlling employees' ability to communicate with the outside world, and regulating their use of IM within the enterprise.

Those features are in hot demand by industries eager to exert some control on freewheeling IM use. Control is especially critical in financial services, where federal regulatory standards require that companies' channels of communications be trackable and auditable -- a requirement that includes public instant messaging, which until recently has gone largely unchecked by compliance officers.

For the major players in public IM -- AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo! , which announced its own hosted management service in October -- this presents an chance to monetize their installed base of users through a licensed enterprise offering.

While Dulles, Va.-based America Online has pitched its superior number of IM users as a reason for businesses to adopt its business product, Microsoft is meanwhile appealing to IT managers on the basis of its existing presence in the enterprise.

"Microsoft's experience in providing software and services for both enterprises and consumers makes us uniquely qualified to bring managed instant messaging to the workplace," said MSN Vice President Yusuf Mehdi. "MSN Messenger Connect delivers features that our enterprise customers have told us they require, such as logging and namespace management, to effectively communicate and conduct transactions with their customers using the MSN Messenger service."

Microsoft is pricing MSN Messenger Connect at about $24 annually per seat, with volume discounts. While that's slightly lower than the expected prices for America Online' Enterprise AIM and Yahoo!'s ASP offering, Connect's price tag does not includes the deployment of IMlogic or FaceTime's messaging management and archiving software.

Like the Enterprise AIM Gateway, MSN Messenger Connect can only regulate users of its affiliated client -- MSN Messenger. That fact represents an opening for firms like FaceTime and IMlogic, which market products that are network-agnostic, and thus can simultaneously manage employees' use of America Online's AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Instant Messenger.

But for Microsoft, its present inability to control all of an enterprise's IM suggests that Connect serves as the foundation for grander schemes. For one thing, the company is exploring ways to tie Connect in to other enterprise-wide Microsoft deployments -- such as Exchange, and its much-touted collaboration platform "Greenwich," due out in the middle of next year.

Linking products in this way might make it more compelling for companies' IT decision-makers to consolidate on Microsoft technology -- thereby requiring employees to use only one platform for instant messaging.

Connect also foreshadows the way that Microsoft believes enterprises' digital communications will be managed in the future -- via private-to-public gateways -- and, ideally, will get clients used to the idea. It's expected that Connect will serve as the management tool for enterprise IM for Greenwich, which also will provide the underlying system-level infrastructure for voice- and video-based messaging, application sharing, and presence (the ability to "see" whether a fellow IM user is online).

"MSN Messenger Connect will offer businesses an initial view of the type of real-time communications experience that will become available with Greenwich," the company said.

Meanwhile, vendors FaceTime and IMlogic still stand to benefit if Microsoft (or the other pubic IM players) succeeds in restricting businesses to only one messaging platform. Each already has agreements in place with Microsoft for using its software in connection with Greenwich, and has additional deals worked out with the other major IM networks.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of

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