Instant Messaging: The Medium Is More Than the Message

Collaboration & Messaging
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Do you know where your instant messages are?


Well, take note! As of December 1, you better find them. All of them! Just in case! And that includes all the IMs of all your employees using all the IM clients on their desktop.

Why? Because as of December 1, 2006, the Supreme Court of the United States said so! Period!

Can't lay your hands on them? Shame on you!

The Best IM Solution for Corporate America

Last September, I wrote an article entitled "Lotus Sametime 7.5 Ships" in which I documented the advances that IBM Lotus has made in providing the first true corporate-ready, cross-messaging-platform IM application. More than an announcement article, it analyzed why Lotus' announcement was ground-breaking for corporations. The article was widely quoted by IBM (see "What the press is saying about IBM Lotus Sametime 7.5"), by technical analysts, and in several blogs (see "Ed Brill's Blog") as possibly the first impartial analysis of why Sametime should be on the corporate radar and why it is more than another instant messaging application.

Since that time, I've had the opportunity to demo Lotus Sametime 7.5, and I consider it—from the standpoint of the corporate infrastructure—one of the most competitive and comprehensive corporate collaboration platforms available in the market.

The Corporate Collaboration Platform

I call it a "corporate collaboration platform" for a number of reasons: It addresses the need of the corporation to begin embracing collaboration in a secure manner. It also provides the control that corporations require, to ensure that employees can rapidly and unobtrusively increase their productivity. Finally, it enables corporations to extend collaborative capabilities as they evolve their sophistication in the realm of collaborating with outside customers, suppliers, and personnel. Needs, control, and extensibility: Those were the keywords.

So where are we now?

157 Million IM Users

Last week, Lotus came through on some of its promises about extensibility by announcing that Lotus Sametime is now able to communicate across the boundaries of instant messaging clients. On December 6, IBM Lotus announced that Sametime customers can now communicate with users of AIM and the Google Talk instant messaging service and that interoperability with Yahoo! Messenger will be available in the next few weeks.

This announcement provides Lotus Sametime users with access to more than 157 million users worldwide, in a secure and controlled corporate environment.

Corporate Productivity Increases

Imagine the productivity impact this can have for customer relationship management and supply chain management!

Instead of developing a customized Web-based support page—where customers or suppliers must go to securely chat with a representative—corporations can easily create Sametime profiles for support that can be shared with thousands of its customers and business partners.

These customers or suppliers can use whatever IM clients they already have on their desktops to inquire about the status of their products or orders.

Linking those profiles to telephony services, the corporation can readily respond in person to a service request over the phone.

Interfacing with other databases and services via APIs (coming in Q1 2007), support staff can rapidly obtain the information required to provide better service.

All of those communications are secure and can be archived for future reference.

And this is just the beginning: Direct customer/supplier communication from the desktop will streamline the support process, creating a new standard for "on demand" service.

The Medium Overwhelms the Message

How did IBM Lotus achieve this cross-platform messaging milestone? Not with proprietary protocols, but with the burgeoning industry messaging standards called SIP/SIMPLE and XMPP.

SIP/SIMPLE stands for "Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions," and it is designed to enable cross-platform messaging between various instant messaging clients by providing "presence awareness." So, if I'm using one instant messaging client and you're using a different client, we'll be able to determine whether we're both available to converse.

XMPP stands for "Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol" and is an open XML technology for real-time communications, which powers a wide range of applications, including instant messaging, presence, media negotiation, white-boarding, collaboration, lightweight middleware, content syndication, and generalized XML delivery.

Using these open protocols (which are also embraced by Google, AOL, and Yahoo! among others), IBM Lotus has been able to combine its secure instant messaging architecture with the ability to interact with other instant messaging services.

The Lotus Sametime Gateway

IBM Lotus is accomplishing this with its Sametime Gateway. The gateway acts as an intermediary between Lotus Sametime and each public IM community by receiving instant messages, translating them into the proper protocol, and delivering them to recipients, regardless of platform. IT administrators will be able to take advantage of the policy management feature of the Sametime Gateway to provide customized access based on a user's business need. It will also be able to archive these messages, a legal imperative that has now become mandatory.

This Sametime Gateway, which allows federated access with AIM and Google Talk, isn't a "statement of direction"; it's available right now. Moreover, access to the AOL, Yahoo! and Google IM communities is included in the license for Lotus Sametime 7.5. In fact, Lotus Sametime 7.5 customers can download the Lotus Sametime Gateway from IBM Passport Advantage today.

The Legal Imperative

So why has secure and controlled instant messaging become a legal priority for corporations? A quick review of the latest news will provide a hint.

As of December the 1, U.S. companies are now required to retain electronic documents, emails, and instant messages generated by their employees in the event they are sued. These rules came about after a five-year review by the administrative arm of the Supreme Court. It requires companies and other parties involved in federal litigation to produce "electronically stored information" as part of discovery, the process by which both sides share evidence before a trial.

If a company is allowing employees to use instant messaging collaborative services in the workplace, it's now IT's responsibility to preserve those communications in the event of a lawsuit involving the federal government.

Now do you remember where you put your users' IMs? ("I know they're around here somewhere....")

Potential Impact of Supreme Court Rules

Of course, the net impact of this ruling might force companies to relinquish the availability of collaborative services like instant message altogether, for fear that they are exposed by the Supreme Court's administrative ruling. It could wield a deadly blow against all collaborative services that IT might initiate.

Lotus Sametime: A Better Solution?

But, by using an architecture like Lotus Sametime, corporations can secure and control the use of collaborative services like instant messaging, while extending those communication services to customers and clients who are using different IM clients.

Moreover, by using Lotus Sametime, IT can consolidate in-house IM client usage onto a single messaging platform that is highly extensible to other IT services like email, CRM, SCM, and telephony.

Finally, IT will be able to archive those messages in the event of legal inquiries.

Compliance Leading to Increased Productivity

In other words, Lotus Sametime enables corporate IT to better comply with the Supreme Court's administrative ruling while delivering a stronger, more secure, more extensible instant messaging platform for its users, customers, and suppliers.

This sounds like a winning scenario for IT, corporate managers, customers, clients, and suppliers—anybody who does business with the organization. Lotus Sametime enables the corporation to better compete and to control its collaborative environment in a structured, secure, and highly extensible manner.

Now, in case you still can't remember where you left all those IMs, you better click over to the IBM Lotus Sametime site and get a little more information.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online.