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Corporate instant messaging emerges from its security blanket

Corporate instant messaging emerges from its security blanket

The corporate presence and instant messaging market appears to be coming out of the holding pattern it has been in over the last few quarters. Catalysts include the entrance of Sun Microsystems' iPlanet unit into the market, the solidifying of Microsoft's plans in the space and an increase in the perceived need in the market for the technology, which enables employees of companies to communicate securely with one another beyond their local networks.

That the presence-based instant messaging offered by the likes of AOL, MSN and Yahoo is widely used within companies is not disputed. But while many large organizations tolerate its use, few seem to encourage it, despite the productivity gains it can bring. The main reason for this attitude is the valid concern over a lack of security, something the corporate IM software vendors are now addressing.

Along with iPlanet's move, there have been positive reports from companies such as Bantu and Jabber. Others, such as PresenceWorks, while finding business a bit slow right now, are confident they will get to where they want to be over the next few quarters.

Bantu chief executive Larry Schlang said his company has had a "great summer." In addition to a major customer win with the US Army, it now has reseller deals with SAIC and TeleCommunication Systems, and technology partnerships with VeriSign, ATG and Citrix Systems. The company will announce a partnership next week with Blackboard, which plans to integrate Bantu's instant messaging platform into its e-education software, and there are other, more significant deals in the pipeline. Bantu's product doesn't interoperate with public IM networks, but Schlang doesn't think that is a big issue anymore in the corporate market. As long as the security issue is solved, something he believes Bantu has done, the need for this kind of technology is there.

PresenceWorks is in a slightly different business, in that its technology enables a company to detect the online presence of users on the major public IM networks through the company's existing LDAP directory or Microsoft Outlook. That presence information -- whether someone is online, offline, in a meeting, and so on -- can then be used to either launch an IM session using AIM, MSN, Yahoo or ICQ clients or to direct the person or people to another, more secure area, which may involve integrating with an existing collaboration technology such as WebEx or Groove. PresenceWorks believes it is addressing the current reality of employees using insecure public IM networks, rather than simply trying to encourage companies to use a different set of tools.

Company founder and chief executive Matt Smith says that business is fairly slow but is progressing in the right direction. The company has found a lot of interest in the product's ability to integrate with Outlook. The idea is that there is no need to have separate buddy lists for each IM network -- sessions can be launched from the Outlook Contacts interface. The company is spreading the word through an offer of limited free use of its technology, and is working to seed the market over the next few months while looking for software partners with which to integrate its technology. A few top CRM vendors would help a lot.

IPlanet bought its technology from NetLert. While the technology appears to be more basic than that of some of its rivals, Sun is selling it as an add-on to its portal rather than as a stand-alone product. That tie-in should help it overcome some of its deficiencies, which include the fact that users will need a Java Virtual Machine that supports Java Swing applications -- although, obviously, Sun can supply this to those that don't have it. It ships next month.

The other main players in the corporate space are Jabber (the commercial arm of the Jabber open source project), Ikimbo, Mercury Prime and 2Way, as well as the companies that sell presence-based CRM applications, such as FaceTime and PeopleLink, and those that sell IM systems mostly to mobile carriers, such as Odigo and MessageVine, along with Jabber.

Now that Microsoft has completely unveiled Windows XP and its integrated messaging system, and it does not appear to be particularly targeted at consumers, it seems the software giant will play in this space via Exchange, putting it up against Lotus' Sametime and to some extent iPlanet.

Standards are taking a long time to come about. By the time they do, interoperability -- which has caused major public spats between AOL and everybody else over the last two years -- won't be such a big issue. As companies such as PresenceWorks have shown, there are ways around that now.

The interesting challenge now is to get the presence information into other applications beyond IM. A few months ago it was thought that mobile operators would be the first to make real progress in spreading the power of presence, but they have a lot of usability issues to sort out first. It seems more likely that CRM, sales force automation and education software vendors will be the early pioneers in taking presence beyond text messaging using stand-alone clients.

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