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AOL Launches Enterprise IM Offering

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After months of speculation, AOL Time Warner’s America Online unit has taken the wraps off its enterprise instant messaging solution.

The offering adds proxy-based management tools on top of the media and Internet giant’s free, wildly popular public service, AIM. Indeed, Enterprise AIM’s use of the same client for public AIM is a key selling point for America Online, which claims a broad user base of about 180 million users — including 60 percent of all businesses.(As of September, Web researcher comScore Networks’ data found that AOL had about 29.2 million users, about 8 percent of which are users logging on from work.)

Regardless of the specific numbers, AIM’s installed user base means fewer headaches for IT departments. For one thing, there’s likely to be little or no training required for an enterprise-wide rollout and relatively simple installation — in many cases, the client will already be installed on users’ workstations. (There’s also bound to be fewer complaints from companies’ public AIM users, which can continue using the client with which they’re familiar.)

“End users are adopting AIM within their enterprise, and those end users had asked for some tools,” said Bruce Stewart, senior vice president of Dulles, Va.-based America Online’s Strategic Business Services unit, which oversees AIM. “That all sort of led us to the view of ‘let’s have a suite of enterprise AIM services.'”

Based on FaceTime Communications‘ flagship IM Director offering, the Enterprise AIM Gateway server enables system administrators to manage individual corporate users’ AIM accounts — to control whether they can send files, or send messages outside the company, for instance.

Deployed behind a company firewall, it also provides for host-based broadcast messaging, anti-virus protection (integrating third-party anti-virus applications) and local routing — ensuring that interoffice communications don’t traverse the larger AIM public network. The Gateway also serves a hub for keyword-tracking, logging, auditing and reporting on employees’ IM use.

Additionally, AOL also offers Private Domains with Federated Authentication, which enables companies — rather than AOL — to manage their users’ AIM accounts. One benefit is that companies can authenticate its AIM users against the corporate directory — simplifying management of screen names and privileges.

Another upshot of this is that companies can assign real-world AIM handles to their users. That is, the module allows John Smith to sign on under his real name, rather than “John2345” — an awkward naming convention necessary due to the number of AIM users named John. (To AIM users outside the company, however, John Smith’s user name appears as his e-mail address.)

Private Domain also supports the AIM buddy list, so both corporate and external AIM users appear. The technology is already in use with Apple’s iChat software for its .Mac service.

In spite of the importance of the product to AOL — and its prerelease buzz — the release has some notable drawbacks. First, the Enterprise Gateway won’t actually filter any messages until AOL has deployed version 5.1 of AIM — which supports the proxy-locking necessary to track and properly direct AIM traffic. AIM 5.1 is currently in beta and slated for release later this quarter.

Companies also will have to wait for encryption capabilities from Enterprise AIM. AOL has tapped VeriSign to handle x.590v3 security certification, and has been testing a secure version of both its gateway and AIM client with about 20 customers since summer. However, the product isn’t expected to be brought to market until the first quarter of 2003.

Not so much a drawback as it is a continued company stance, Enterprise AIM also won’t support server-to-server interoperability. AOL had briefly experimented with the concept in a project with IBM’s Lotus Sametime, but ceased the trial in June. At the time, AOL said that the effort — relying on the IETF’s proposed SIP and SIMPLE protocols — proved too costly and limited in security and functionality.

“Server-to-server interoperability standards aren’t where they need to be,” Stewart said. “We take very seriously the importance of customer privacy, network security and network performance. In the interim … we’ll continue to closely monitor the number of different standards and board activities.”

America Online will offer the Gateway Server on both licensed and subscription models. Sources close to AOL said license pricing would run between $34 to $40 per seat. Private Domains and Federated Authentication will be subscription-based as well, while AOL plans to charge additional fees for the encrypted client.

In addition to the core Enterprise AIM offering, AOL also is pushing to roll out the messaging and presence technology in AIM to businesses and third-party software developers through a developer kit and certified developer program.

“Multiple partners and customers are interested in using IM … to build a multiple of business applications that fundamentally allow them to plug into the AIM service — to establish presence within those applications, or to embed an AIM client in those applications,” Stewart said.

So far, partners having signed on under AOL’s developer program include PresenceWorks. AOL said is speaking to “a number” of other companies about establishing commercial relationships around the technology, but declined to disclose further specifics.

America Online’s foray into the space comes just a month after rival Web portal and public IM player Yahoo! announced its own enterprise IM offering, expected to ship during first quarter.

Unlike Enterprise AIM, Yahoo! Messenger Enterprise Edition is only available in a hosted version. It is expected to be priced similarly to AOL’s product.

Microsoft , maker of the other major public IM network, is also gearing up to release enterprise instant messaging tools under its larger Greenwich initiative.

According to Microsoft, Greenwich will serve as a secure enterprise IM management platform based on standards — likely to be SIP/SIMPLE, which is already supported in Microsoft’s Windows Messenger. The product is expected to debut in the middle of 2003.

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