Smaller Businesses Confront Instant Messaging Instant messaging offers many benefits for smaller businesses, but also presents surprising choices and real risks. Ignoring IM is no longer an option.
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For smaller businesses, the question is no longer "To IM or not to IM?" but "How to IM?"
Instant messaging is rapidly becoming the way people work as well as network. Less intrusive than a phone call, IM is invaluable for business communications because it tells you who is available -- often called presence -- and can get you answers in real time, often much faster than e-mail exchanges.
Bottom line: Your company needs IM. And, even if your company doesn't support IM, even if you forbid its use, chances are that right at this moment quite a few of your employees are typing away in an AIM or Yahoo IM window.
Whether your employees use IM for business or social communication, uncontrolled, unregulated use could be dangerous to your company and your networks. Just because your employees are using IM under the corporate radar doesn't meant the company isn't responsible for the information traveling back and forth in that text window.
For example, at my online retail bookstore, we forbade IM use, but that didn't stop a link from an employee's Yahoo Instant Messenger account effectively shutting down our entire operation for more than a month as we tried to figure out where, how, who, and why someone started selling stolen cameras on Amazon via our bookstore.
The Legality of IM
The legal ramifications of IM use are still in flux, but there's a clear progression toward IM correspondence being just as important as letters, e-mail, or phone conversations. In 2003, the National Association of Securities Dealers, now the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, mandated that members monitor IM the same way they do e-mail. So even if you're not archiving IM conversations, someone else who could sue you could be.
To stay safe and maximize productivity, your best strategy is to figure out how to make instant messaging safe, reliable, and regulated. Apart from allowing users to do whatever they want -- not recommended -- you have three basic instant messaging options:
1. Block all use of IM
2. Allow and support a standard free IM solution
3. Shell out for a paid IM provider, either hosted or running on-site on your servers and software
Forbidding all IM traffic may seem like the easiest and safest way to go -- and you may want to consider that approach until you decide how to manage your risks. But IM does have real business benefits, especially for distributed workforces, and blocking IM isn't necessarily that easy, as many hacks and services, including tunneling and port-crawling programs, make it easy for your employees to log into free public IM services. (In fact, many IM programs are port-crawlers themselves, including AOL's AIM.) Dedicated IMers will quickly figure out how to get around most firewalls. Even blocking all installations of outside programs may not do the trick, especially for users on Apple-based systems with iChat pre-installed.
Set IM Free
Once you decide to allow IM in the door, the pros of the free systems are easy to define. They're free. They're easy to implement. They're free. You and your employees probably already know how to use them. And, well, they're free.
The first step is choosing a provider. The big five free IM providers:
* AOL AIM
* Yahoo Messenger
* Microsoft Windows Live Messenger (the successor to MSN Messenger)
* Google Talk
All five provide relatively similar services, but use vastly different interfaces, though most are preference-based. Increasingly, they all offer additional services such as file sharing, audio, and video. Tastes vary, but many observers seem taken with the MSN interface, while they like Yahoo's video treatment.
But the most important thing separating the free services is how many people you can message with. It doesn't matter how good the service is if you can't connect with the people you want to reach. Right now, Yahoo Messenger and AIM are neck and neck in popularity, with Microsoft a strong third. But Yahoo and Microsoft already let you IM with folks using the other service. The point is that you may want to adopt the service that most of your employees, customers, and vendors already use as the standard for your company.
If your company needs to communicate with people on different networks, you could download multiple clients, but a better solution is to try one of several meta-IM software programs designed to let you use a single client to communicate with people on various IM services. For many smaller businesses, this may be the easiest path. It means IT folks can support only one client, while offering maximum compatibility.
Leading meta-IM clients -- and they're all free -- include:
* Trillium, the market leader
* Meebo, Web based for use anywhere
* Miranda, for Windows, small, fast, and customizable
* Adium for Mac OS X
Be forewarned, Meta-IM is still a wild and woolly landscape. Keeping up with changes in the various services is a challenge for all the meta-IM clients, and occasional glitches in advanced features -- and the odd complete shutdown -- are to be expected.
But what about security? The free services all do what they can to protect users. And there are different ways of setting your firewall to stop attacks from things like viruses, worms, unauthorized logins and hacks, Trojan horses via file transfers, and SPIM, the IM version of spam.
On top of that, there's a whole industry dedicated to adding security and safety to public IM servers. Companies like Akonix, FaceTime Communications, and Symantec all offer security and other "hygiene" solutions for free IM services. At a price, of course.
Just remember, when you go free, you get what you pay for. If your company really needs a more customizable system, especially one that will integrate with your current communications systems, it's time to consider putting your money where your messages are.
With Instant Messaging, You Get What You Pay For
Paid IM services and software have a number of important advantages, especially for smaller businesses. Most important, they satisfy the "need for integration of messaging functionality with other applications," explains Erica Driver, principal analyst for enterprise messaging at Forrester Research. And while you do have to pay, it's a "predictable cost, usually monthly."
But whether to pay for your IM services is just the first decision. You also must decide whether to outsource your IM service or host it in-house. Which approach is right for your company depends on the size and IT capabilities of your organization.
Typically, smaller companies without the resources to handle constant upkeep, backups, and archiving tend to outsource. That saddles the vendor with the responsibility for everything -- from antivirus auto-updates to anti-spam. It also means there's someone to call if IM service is spotty, interrupted, or goes down completely.
On the flip side, "on-premise solutions are easier to integrate with internal business applications than hosted solutions are," says Forrester's Driver. The trade-off is much higher up-front costs, plus ongoing expenses for equipment, storage, and IT manpower.
How much higher is hard to predict. There's a reason actual costs for outsourced or in-house solutions aren't quoted. Depending upon the company, or even the salesperson, prices can vary widely and unpredictably. And complicated contracts often conceal even more hidden costs or fees.
A Range of Prices
When all is said and done, plan to spend anywhere from $2 to $30 per user per month -- yes, that's a pretty wide range. MessageLabs, for example, charges $5 per user per month for its SMB IM service, while Verizon charges $5.95 per user per month. You can often save money on IM when you buy additional services from the vendor. At e-mail hosting provider USA.NET, for example, IM adds only about $2 per user per month to the cost of Microsoft Exchange e-mail hosting.
Finally, you have to select an IM vendor. You'll probably recognize the biggest ones:
* IBM Lotus Sametime
* Jabber Extensible Communications Platform
* Jive Software's OpenFire
* Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007
As noted, pricing plans can vary widely even within a single vendor, and vendors often bundle IM with a larger suite of communications products and services. Still, the various IM systems really aren't all that different. Most, if not all, offer some method of connection with the free services.
But that's not all. Many industry-specific communications providers cater to the needs of particular markets. Reuters, Bloomberg, PivotSolutions, and MarkitGroup all target the financial services sector with different combinations of IM security and connectivity. Bantu, which charges a one-time fee of $30 per user for IM service, has a program tailored for government and educational users.
IM Is About Security, Not Size
Conventional wisdom holds that small, low-profile companies can get by with a public IM service -- and may not even need a security program. But the IM landscape is changing even for smaller businesses, says Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz. "I would suggest that the issue is becoming less about company size and more about protecting critical information," Koplowitz says. "Larger companies have led the charge in implementing enterprise IM because they tend to have greater rigor around security, privacy, and compliance. However, these issues are ultimately important to small and medium companies as well. As the technology becomes easier to access and implement, small and medium companies will move in the direction of implementing enterprise solutions."
Another trend is that instant messaging is increasingly being subsumed into wider Universal Communications strategies, even at small and midsize companies. UC ties IM and other technologies into larger communications environments, letting users seamlessly connect with each other using any device, at any time. IM and "presence" are a key part of the UC equation, but as UC grows, choosing an IM provider will become even more complicated.
In the meantime, if you're not comfortable betting your company's future on free IM, but don't yet need to tie your instant messaging into an existing communications infrastructure, then an outsourced solution is probably right for you. If you already have your e-mail hosted by an outside provider, you will likely want to look at that vendor's IM offerings. Similarly, if you've already shelled out the cash for IBM Lotus Notes/Domino or Microsoft Outlook/Exchange for your in-house e-mail, it makes sense to go with the related IM products as well.
Despite the lack of simple answers for IM, one thing is clear. IM is here to stay. People in your company are using IM whether you like it or not. If you don't choose an IM strategy, your company's employees will make their own decisions -- and the company will be responsible for them.
Joel Enos owns Limelightbooks.com, an online bookseller of theater and film scripts. He was a senior editor for Ziff Davis Publications and has published articles in ForbesASAP, Fortune, Red Herring, Upside, SmartBusiness, Wired and on Internet.com and CNET.com. His last story for bMighty was the 2007 bMighty Holiday Gift Guide.