, IBM'sLotus, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and other big-name enterprise software vendors are pushing to merge IM and presence with business apps and groupware.
The vision, as these players see it, is that instant messaging becomes entwined with other applications used frequently in the workplace -- with the ability to find and interact with coworkers or clients, share information, and shift seamlessly between applications and communications modes.
With Microsoft "Greenwich" on the horizon, Sun's newly enhanced portal-meets-IM solution now unveiled, and Oracle's soon-to-be-released messaging integration with its Oracle9i Application Server, the move toward merging instant messaging into enterprise apps is gaining speed. Yet it's hardly a new direction for a smaller, specialized vendor that's continuing to make waves in the field.
The IM system we know today as Communicator, Inc.'s Hub IM grew out of the White Plains, New York-based company's earlier work in content aggregation portals for the financial services community.
In December, 1999, Communicator teamed with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Salomon Smith Barney (now a Citigroup unit) and Goldman Sachsto launch Bond.Hub, a site incorporating research and information on fixed-income products from the three founding dealers. Benefits for institutional investor clients included a single sign-on for access to all three dealers' information and commingled information.
Four months later, the partners in Bond.Hub rejoined, and were in turn joined by J.P. Morgan, Lehman Brothersand Merrill Lynch, to launch SecuritiesHub -- a larger capital markets portal that would incorporate the original bond-focused site.
But communications and collaboration within that environment didn't come about in earnest until last April, when Communicator introduced instant messaging into the mix. The debut is notable for being one of the early examples of a multi-enterprise, federated instant messaging system. (Since then, the model of federated IM authentication has been adopted by Microsoft Greenwich, Sun, and the public IM networks' enterprise products.)
Hub IM's launch instantly created one of the largest secure, enterprise IM networks, accessible by SecuritiesHub's users -- at the time, 30,000 professionals at eight of the world's largest financial institutions and 2,000 institutional money management firms.
Similar to its affiliated portal, Communicator Hub IM provided single sign-on and unified identity management for SecuritiesHub applications. The identity management features went so far as to ensure that even forwarded content links could be accessible only by authorized users.
Available either as a stand-alone application, or via Web browser, Hub IM also integrated with corporate directories, and was one of the earliest IM systems to comply with auditing and regulatory requirements (although it later offered integration with IMlogic's compliance solution as well).
Last fall, version 3.5 of Hub IM added discussion forums, the ability to filter contacts by status, and other user-interface customizability options. In February of this year, a new update of the system expanded its offering further, with version 3.6 enabling groups of up to 1,000 to hold online, real-time discussions.
The Hub IM 3.6 update also gives client companies the ability to set up their own discussion Forums. Version 3.6 also added notification options that enable users to receive alerts when Forum threads, news or information is updated.
More importantly, the 3.6 update added support for syndicating Hub IM-based presence into other applications or Web sites. That's an area seen by all of the major players in IM as crucial for the space's development, as well as a host of startups like BuddySpace and PresenceWorks.
"Companies are saying, 'IM is here in our company, and we need to spend some money to control it,'" said Scott Lichtman, Communicator's head of marketing. "After that point, they start talking about embedding the capabilities of a tool like Hub IM in all different applications ... like creating an applications and communications portal -- you can read something posted in the portal and find the person who wrote it and talk to them -- or there are other scenarios, like help desk support. At this stage, you're delivering the instant messages, forums, and content into a variety of real business applications."
Earlier this month, the company added news feeds from Dow Jones into Hub IM -- making the system even more of a centralized source for news, communications and applications.
The end result, say Communicator executives, is an offering that combines presence-enabled applications, collaboration tools, and business-critical information sources within the small footprint of an IM client.
"IM is morphing," Lichtman said. "Users are saying, 'I need to get more out of it'. So we're including discussion forums, and content delivery, and the taking idea of content and presence and embedding it in different areas."
Moving early into that sort of positioning seems likely to well serve Communicator's flavor of enterprise IM as the trend continues toward application-integration, and it faces competition from some very deep-pocketed rivals.
Considering the immense competition already entrenched elsewhere in the enterprise, it's unclear at this juncture whether we'll be seeing Hub IM integrated throughout businesses in their other applications. But with a slew of big-name backers and clients of its own, ties to popular, niche-oriented content portals, and the continual addition of new features -- like support for the Jabber IM and presence protocol, and the SAML and Liberty Alliance security standards -- Hub IM, at the very least, is likely to remain a persistent factor in enterprise messaging, in spite of the recent attention given to IM integration with applications and portals by the space's heavyweights.
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.