Instant futures

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Instant messaging has bridged the gap between consumer toy and business tool, says Bill Scott, but development challenges still remain

In the 1980s, everybody wanted MTV. Now, everybody seems to want instant messaging (IM), which is fast becoming a critical communications tool for today's corporations. Yet IM represents a significant challenge for chief information officers (CIOs), who must empower employees with tools that enhance productivity while at the same time safeguard and archive corporate information.

Over the past five years, IM has evolved from a consumer phenomenon into a corporate productivity tool. Indeed, more than 330 million people worldwide will use instant messaging for business by the end of 2005, a dramatic surge from 65 million business users in 2002, according to the Yankee Group Research, Inc.

Many employees use IM for rapid-fire communications with their peers, business partners and customers. These fast-paced exchanges simply aren't possible with slow-moving email systems and clogged voice-mail systems.

Still, traditional consumer instant messaging systems – from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo – aren't yet ready for corporate use. Government regulations and compliance legislation require many businesses to secure and archive their electronic messages.

There are also security concerns to consider as well. Although worms and viruses primarily move through e-mail systems, more and more rogue code is flowing through IM networks. Moreover, in excess of 1 billion IM messages are unsolicited spim (i.e. spam in the IM world), according to The Radicati Group, Inc.

In many ways, CIOs are caught in a technology paradox: even as they strive to lock down corporate messaging systems, employees continue to download free IM software from the internet and install it on corporate PCs.

Progressive companies can configure Windows to block IM software downloads and installs, but such steps tend to irritate employees who depend on IM to communicate with remote colleagues, and demanding customers.

Today organizations need to define their business objectives and security parameters for using IM. For example, regulations in the financial industry require organizations to encrypt customer data to ensure privacy as well as keep logs of all business communications.

While secure messaging is a top priority, it should not been done in isolation. In addition to IM, the secure messaging program should cover email, mobile, and document delivery applications. Some businesses have opted to enhance consumer IM software with "enterprise-like" qualities. Yet this short-term solution doesn't deliver complete security.

Other CIOs are exploring the use of enterprise instant messaging (EIM) systems. Although functionality varies from product to product, most EIM systems support such features as security, archiving, auditing, encryption, authentication, and logging capabilities – key requirements for compliance with various government regulations.

Still, challenges remain. The situation becomes complicated when an organization wants to exchange instant messages with customers and business partners as many enterprise and consumer IM systems weren't designed to work together.

Although instant messaging has been around for nearly a decade, CIOs are only now aware of the business opportunities, and the risks. Like email and voicemail, IM will soon become a key communications link in many firms. Instead of letting end-users call the shots, CIOs need to step in and build IM pipelines that fulfill employee needs while adhering to government regulations.

Bill Scott is the senior architect of Sigaba, a secure messaging software provider

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