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Momentum continues among providers in the white-hot instant messaging application interface space, as two players release new interactive agent -- or "bot" -- offerings that link IM to enterprise apps and backend databases.
One of those firms, New York-based ActiveBuddy-- which popularized the public-network IM bot field with agents it deployed on behalf of marketers, -- is now making its first forays into enterprise applications.
The company's new HR Agent bot provides a company's employees with a "self-service" means of getting answers to common human resources questions. For instance, employees might chat over IM with HR Agent to inquire about how many vacation days they have remaining, about details of their benefit plans, or to update personal information. ActiveBuddy said HR Agent understands hundreds of common human resources requests and also can be customized for specific businesses.
On the back end, HR Agent integrates with databases like PeopleSoft 8 to pull information in response to users' inquiries, and also works with companies' wireless networks and Web-based chat (useful in integration with corporate portals.) User authentication is a non-issue, since it's already built into enterprise IM systems and corporate portals.
Self-service tools like HR Agent could prove to be a timesaver for companies' human resources departments. Especially at large firms, HR personnel can spend hours each week answering basic questions from employees. By referring routine inquiries to the Agent, company HR professionals theoretically can put their time to more effective use.
"Companies want to make sure that their few HR staffers are doing professional-level HR stuff, rather than answering questions about how many sick days employees have left," said ActiveBuddy engineer Greg Mitchell. "This helps them to focus on their areas of high-level expertise."
Unlike SmarterChild, RingMessenger and other bots designed by ActiveBuddy for marketing and information dissemination via the public IM networks, HR Agent is the company's first foray into designing applications solely targeted at businesses. The complete offering includes the HR Agent application, a backend integration layer, and the enterprise edition of ActiveBuddy's BuddyScript Server.
To get HR Agent in the market, ActiveBuddy is teaming up with resellers like Computer Sciences Corporation , one of the major services providers for applications like PeopleSoft.In addition to opening a new potential source of revenue for ActiveBuddy, HR Agent also is intended to encourage developers to create their own bots using the company's free scripting software. Servers to run the agents, however, are licensed from the company.
ActiveBuddy has been licensing its server technology since last year, and spokespeople said that more than 100,000 developers have downloaded the BuddyScript software development kit (SDK). Nevertheless, there's been only middling interest from developers at major companies -- who represent the company's prime target market.
"We realized that just delivering the SDK wouldn't be enough ... to jumpstart our sales efforts," said Mitchell said. "We needed to attract people to the SDK ... and it's going to be a while for someone to build applications, so we immediately began thinking of application areas to work in that were very universal. HR self-service we thought was very universal, and at the time, we were embarking on a partnership with CSC."
The company also is pursuing other means to reach enterprise customers. This week, at IBM's annual Lotusphere event, ActiveBuddy announced that its BuddyScript servers are now able to communicate with Lotus's enterprise IM product, Sametime.Linking with Sametime represents an important development for ActiveBuddy's bid to encourage enterprise developers to create BuddyScript applications, since Sametime enjoys sizable market share in businesses.
"Sametime is probably the leading enterprise-class IM system being used today," said ActiveBuddy spokesperson Kathy Englar. "Let's imagine that a Fortune500 company has a Sametime implementation. That's the perfect environment in which to deploy this application."
New Competition in the Bot Space
Instant Technologies Corp., with offices in Beverly, Mass., also is using Lotusphere as a platform to launch its own bot scripting technology.
Founded by former managers at Lotus Notes, the startup's new Instant Agent Framework is aimed at enabling IT departments to easily construct agents.
Similarly to how BuddyScript supports XML , SOAP and SQL , bots developed using Instant Technologies' Framework can cull data from major vendors' databases. The framework ships with a link to Lotus Domino."We realized that bots were pretty obvious to most people," said Instant Technologies Chief Executive Tim Browne. "Everyone wants to grab data while in an IM session, but the prohibitive thing is the time it takes to build them. What we really wanted to work on was to create that framework development environment that would let everyone else build it easily, and a company wouldn't have to go to a fairly expensive consultant to have that sort of automation done."
The new entrant into the world of IM bots adds to an already crowded field. In addition to going head-to-head with ActiveBuddy, Instant Technologies will compete with Vayusphere, which for some time has been marketing IM-based application interfaces.
Firms like Primus Knowledge Solutions, eGain Communications and FaceTime Communications also work in bot technology, chiefly within CRM implementations. Additionally, IMlogic is working on a bot offering, while consultancies including Ailiant, WiredBots and emedia produce private-label bots.
It will be the second time that Instant Technologies finds itself pitted against competitors in a hot segment within instant messaging. Since November, the firm has been marketing software for embedding Sametime-based presence into Microsoft Outlook. Other companies in the presence space include PresenceWorks, BuddySpace, Antepo and Zion Software.Still, Instant Technologies is seeing some notable successes. Clients of its Sametime-Outlook product, dubbed Instant TeamMessenger, include Sharp Technologies, Sandia National Laboratories, and the maritime division of the Canadian Armed Forces.
In coming months, Instant Technologies plans to expand its product offerings with presence-enabled add-ons for Microsoft Office.
Both ActiveBuddy's and Instant Technologies' new products also come as larger players in communications and Internet technology are paying closer attention to IM bot technology. In November, Sprint announced its intention to enter the space with a system that would enable users to interface with applications and databases via IM and wireless connections.America Online , too, has been playing with bot technology. In addition to being an early partner of ActiveBuddy, teams at the Internet giant's Mountain View, Calf. unit have been testing IM bot implementations based on alicebot.org's Artificial Intelligence Markup Language.In early December, the company launched SantaClaus, a chat bot with (surprise, surprise) a holiday theme. Later in the month, it also began testing ZoeOnAOL, a more general-purpose IM bot. So far, AOL has said the applications are strictly experimental, although they showcase several features new to AOL IM bots. For one thing, ZoeOnAOL is multilingual.
Signalling AOL's continued resistance to unauthorized third-party AIM clients, the bots are incompatible with applications like Cerulean Studios' Trillian 1.0 (although not Trillian's freeware version).
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.
Looking to make sense of how to integrate IM and presence in your business? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring Conference and Expo, Feb. 24 and 25 in Boston. Sessions include "Beyond IM: Point of Presence and Collaborative Applications" and "Integrating IM into a Traditional IT Structure."