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2003’s Top Trends in IM

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Pundits will probably look back on 2003 — at best — as a year of very conservative growth for the instant messaging industry.

But those in the trenches this year deserve a good deal of congratulations. Despite long sales cycles and continued strain on IT budgets, the space experienced some of its largest product launches to date, a number of important alliances among stakeholders, and several key venture capital investments.

A number of key deployments also debuted, in industries ranging from financial services to entertainment, reflecting customers’ response to the gospel long preached by vendors of enterprise IM solutions — describing the benefits of real-time communications and presence awareness associated with the technology.

As 2003 draws to a close, then, looks back at some of the major trends that dominated the headlines during the year — and which will be sure to pave the way for developments in 2004.

Security Woes Aplenty in Public IM

First up, we take a look at an issue close to the hearts and minds of enterprise network security admins everywhere: the continuing threat to corporate infrastructure posed by consumer-grade IM. Instant messaging might be one of the hottest new channels of communications to hit the enterprise, but if it’s not properly regulated, it could easily bring with it a myriad of security headaches.

Of course, this isn’t a new issue. But it remains a constant source of worry for IT staff, and continues to be one of the chief factors behind the sale of enterprise-grade IM solutions.

New threats this year include the increasing use of instant messaging by viruses and worms, as a channel by which to spread. In October, enterprise security technology vendor Symantec released findings that indicated IM-based security threats are seeing a dramatic surge. The firm found that of the top 50 virus threats during the first six months of the year, IM and peer-to-peer technology played a role in 19 — a 400 percent increase from the previous year.

Also this year, Microsoft and Yahoo! each recently required users to upgrade to new versions of their IM clients in response to serious security threats. Despite the networks’ efforts, however, hackers continue finding holes in their clients. Just earlier this month, security researchers found a possible vulnerability in Yahoo! Messenger, for instance. And as public IM continues to grow in the workplace, these security holes seem likely to only increase in frequency.

Application Integration

On a brighter note, strides were made this year in linking enterprise instant messaging systems to other applications in the workplace — which raises the ROI of IM deployments and broadens their utility to businesses.

For one thing, Lotus began executing on its Workplace strategy and related product line. Workplace product components will be available individually or in a package, and portions of their features can be integrated with other apps through Web services. In Workplace 1.1, released in November, Lotus debuted new offerings integrating Web conferencing and IM capabilities from Lotus Team Workplace 3 (a product previously known as QuickPlace, and not part of the Workplace initiative) and Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing (formerly Sametime).

In Lotus Notes and Domino 6.5, the software giant more closely integrated Lotus Instant Messaging functionality, in an effort to give users presence capabilities that let them see when co-workers or other colleagues are online and ready to accept messages. From there, workers will have the capability to initiate an instant messaging session directly from their inboxes, from e-mail fields, or from an integrated contact list.

That’s a strategy similar to what Microsoft is pursuing with its Office System suite of applications. In connection with Office Live Communications Server, the enterprise IM server formerly known as “Greenwich,” Office applications like Word, SharePoint Team Services and Outlook can be enhanced with built-in presence-detection, contact lists, and instant messaging. Microsoft finally unleashed Live Communications Server in the year’s biggest product launch, in late October.

Both Microsoft and IBM see IM and presence being syndicated to third-party applications. As part of the new Notes and Domino release, Lotus Domino Designer will allow developers to add presence capabilities to applications that run inside of a Notes or Domino application layer. Microsoft is providing tools to allow for similar connectivity directly to customers, and through a bevy of partners.

Other giants are following suit. Like IBM and Microsoft, Sun’s recently revamped IM offering increases integration with other components of its business productivity suite, the Sun ONE Collaborative Business Platform.

Yahoo! also is getting into the action, with efforts to make it easier for third-party application developers to integrate Yahoo! Business Messenger into their systems. For instance, the company struck a deal with BEA Systems and PeopleSoft.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based PeopleSoft’s Enterprise Portal 8.8 also links to IBM Lotus Sametime, as well as Microsoft’s Live Communications Server. Later in the year, America Online’s AIM also signed on with PeopleSoft.

Efforts in unified messaging — integrating IM into telephony and voicemail systems — got a boost from such stalwarts in the field as Cisco and Siemens. With the launch of OpenScape in spring, Siemens took the wraps off its play in IM and UM, using an offering based on Microsoft’s Live Communications Server. Meanwhile, Cisco discussed plans to more closely embed IM in its unified messaging products.

Lights, Camera, IM: Multimedia Rising

In addition to tying IM into business applications, the major players in instant messaging are making efforts to build-in additional, richer forms of communications — making it easier for two parties to escalate their conversation from text chat to audio, video, and Web-sharing, as needed.

Much of the progress in linking IM and multimedia this year has come from the players in public IM.Following its having successfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to relax earlier restrictions, and after introducing some earlier, stopgap features, AOL is planning to unveil streaming video messaging.

Microsoft, too, has been busily enhancing multimedia features in MSN Messenger. This year, it allied itself with Webcam giant Logitech to incorporate the firm’s technology into its IM client.

In the realm of purely enterprise applications, IM management gateway provider FaceTime hooked up with online conferencing player Latitude (now being acquired by Cisco). The integration agreement between the firms enables IM users to easily migrate from chat sessions into Web conferencing.

Meanwhile, Yahoo! — which has long offered video through its public IM network — inked its deal with WebEx to provide for on-demand, ad hoc Web conferencing sessions launched via the Yahoo! Business Messenger IM client.

In more recent weeks, WiredRed added Web conferencing to its enterprise IM offering, while Userplane released its secure, Flash-based video instant messaging system for businesses and Web sites. eDial also entered the fray with its solution, which merges instant messaging, Web conferencing, and telephony.

Microsoft also has announced plans to more closely integrate Live Meeting and Live Communications Server — making it easier for business IM users to segue into Web conferences.

Inching Toward Interoperability

Like public security woes, interoperability among the major public IM networks is a perennial hot topic. But the possibility of authorized, cross-network communications saw its first real breakthrough only during the past several months, thanks to pioneering efforts by Reuters Group. In September, the financial information titan partnered with America Online in an agreement that would enable its users to exchange IMs with AIM users.

As the Reuters Messaging network is based on Microsoft’s Live Communications Server technology, it was no surprise that MSN soon after signed on as well for similar functionality. With additional agreements with major players in the enterprise market, IBM Lotus and Parlano, Reuters reshaped itself as a hub for cross-network communications. Those capabilities, it should be noted, will be available only to users of Reuters’ soon-to-be-released fee-based version of Reuters Messaging.

Additionally, as part of its settlement with Microsoft, AOL said the two companies would explore the possibility of interoperability. Little has yet to be seen from this announcement, however.

Meanwhile, while Reuters, AOL, IBM and Microsoft were expanding their relationships, a number of important strides were being made in other areas of IM. The supporters behind the open-source Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) endorsed gateways linking XMPP to the Open Mobile Alliance’s Wireless Village specification — a major force in mobile IM — and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) / SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), which is widely supported by players in VoIP. The group also began discussions with major players behind SIP/SIMPLE for true protocol-level interoperability.

Mobile Messaging Maturing

The past year also has been marked by efforts by the public IM giants to explore new ways of connecting PC-based IM with mobile messaging, in advance of burgeoning U.S. consumer interest in wireless text messaging and advancements in mobile device technology.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure enabling mobile messaging in North America has been improving steadily and adding new features, paving the way for increased use of the medium as a marketing tool.

Mobile carriers also are striving to leverage IM as a means to generate additional revenue. Verizon Wireless recently introduced a multi-network IM client, while Cingular struck deals with AOL and Yahoo!. Other carriers have pursued similar integration strategies.

For the moment, the convergence of wired and wireless IM has been predominantly driven by carriers’ efforts to glean additional income from subscribers. But increasing evidence shows that businesses also want wireless IM and presence-enabled technologies — making the ascendancy of mobile IM one of the probable big stories of 2004.

What else is on the horizon for 2004? What will come of 2003’s developments in security, network interoperability, and application, multimedia and wireless integration? Be sure to e-mail us with your thoughts.

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