Instant messaging gets busy

Integrators harness tool to improve work flow

Instant messaging at work: Pervasive, growing


Number of instant messaging and chat users in the U.S. workplace:
September 2000: 27,546,000
September 2001: 34,369,000
Increase: 25 percent

Hours spent on instant messaging and chat applications in the U.S. workplace:
September 2000: 381,266,667
September 2001: 545,516,666
Increase: 43 percent

Source: Jupiter Media Metrix Inc.

Christine Eliopoulos, project leader for the NATO instant messaging implementation at Mitre Corp., said NATO employed the solution for Strong Resolve, its March field exercise.

The newest name on a government worker's Buddy List could be his or her supervisor.

Instant messaging has quickly become one of the Internet's most popular tools for communicating with friends and loved ones and, not surprisingly, its use has spilled into the workplace. Now a number of developers and industry observers see potential in this popular technology as a job tool.

"We believe there is a future in embedding instant messaging into daily operations to accelerate work flow," said David Elfenbaum, chief executive officer of Asynchrony Solutions Inc., St. Louis. Asynchrony is building an enhanced instant messaging system for the Defense Department. It will be rolled out to 50,000 users in the next six months as part of a collaborative tool suite.

"There's a huge market opportunity for integrators," Elfenbaum said. "I don't think people have figured out how to use instant messaging inside their day-to-day business."

Instant messaging was introduced by America Online Inc., Dulles, Va., in the mid-1990s as an enhanced version of Internet chat software. It is now used by about 54 million Americans, including 13 million who are at work, according to Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., a new-media market research company in New York.

What accounts for its success as a communications tool, according to David Richards, chief innovation officer for the marketing consulting firm Persona Inc., Reston, Va., is its mix of informality and immediacy. With instant messaging, a user can see if someone is online and, if so, get a response immediately, he said. And since the messages tend to be short and snappy, minimal preparation is needed for an exchange.

Such benefits can be harnessed in the workplace, proponents say.

Richards said he has witnessed instant messages used to speed work on a project where a chat between two people was subsequently cut from the messaging client and pasted to an e-mail that was sent to other project partners. Such an approach saved the time it would have taken to type in the information if that exchange had taken place verbally. It also left less room for misinterpretation, Richards said.

Messaging software can also be beneficial as a tracking tool, Elfenbaum said. "If someone is not online, they can leave a message saying 'Back in an hour' or 'Out to lunch,' or whatever," he said.

Users posting their availability will also allow the system to automatically send out notifications or tasks when they come online and track when those are received. It can also keep close tabs on what remote teleworkers are doing on their computers.

Although the overwhelming number of people who instant message one another use free commercial services offered by America Online, Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., or Yahoo! Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., these products don't offer the security, accountability or interoperability needed to weave messaging into the workplace.

Consequently, other companies are developing the value-adds to extend messaging's capabilities, including government-backed developers that have built messengers that address specific agency needs.

Mitre Corp., McLean, Va., a nonprofit government technology research and development company, created a secure instant messaging solution for NATO that not only offers secure messaging, but also real-time translations of the many languages NATO officials use.

NATO employed the solution for Strong Resolve, its March field exercise. Strong Resolve was a simulated mission that took place in Poland, the Baltic Sea and Norway. The system connected 45 desktop computers across a number of independent networks, each with its own security protocol, said Christine Eliopoulos, project leader for the NATO instant messaging implementation.

At first, NATO participants were skeptical they would employ messaging, because they already had e-mail and secure telephone lines at their disposal, Eliopoulos said. But they used the service when both of those options were rendered unusable.

The system's ability to translate messages from one language to another on the fly, using a separate translation protocol developed by Mitre, is one of its chief advantages. The solution can translate messages in a number of European languages, including English, Spanish, Portuguese and German, according to Rod Holland, Mitre's chief architect of the Translingual Instant Messenger protocol.

For security, Mitre used an automated mechanism that checks security protocols of different networks to verify who may speak with whom, and even what information can be passed between two parties, Eliopoulos said. Also, the system uses an internal messaging server to pass messages. By not relying on external servers offered by a commercial service, conversations between two people in the same office won't be sent out over the Internet.

Asynchrony also offers enhanced security with its own instant messenger system, which the company will release commercially this month under the name Evoke. It allows users to participate in conferences hosted by other collaborative applications without having to actually log into those applications, Elfenbaum said.

An integrator that specialized in tying back-end legacy systems to newer components, Asynchrony was first drawn into the instant messaging market by the Defense Information Systems Agency. The agency contracted Asynchrony to commercialize software that DISA had previously developed for the Defense Collaborative Tool Suite, a collection of standardized and interoperable remote collaboration tools.

The software served as a chat component that connected remote users collaborating on projects through videoconference software, digital whiteboards, file-sharing tools, phones, virtual meeting rooms or other collaborative software.

Asynchrony's solution also offers a high level of security through using a public key infrastructure. "The only people allowed to communicate with one another are those accepted by the administrator," Elfenbaum said.

Evoke can log and time-stamp conversations and, using the digital authentication, validate the identity of participants. For accountability-sensitive agencies, such as the Defense Department, this is a valuable feature, Elfenbaum said, in that it permits the service to be used in an official capacity.

Asynchrony is also talking with DISA about a possible development project for a tool that would allow message logs to be incorporated into knowledge management systems, so conversations can be indexed and searched. Beyond the collaborative tool suite work, Asynchrony is in discussions with non-defense agencies as well as two integrators about the use of the product, Elfenbaum said.

Elfenbaum said he is optimistic that instant messaging will ultimately be widely used in the workplace, given its popularity with end users.

"The commercial demand is leading the market, as opposed to cases where the technology tries to lead the market," he said.

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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