Businesses (all businesses) have a big stake in the evolution of instant messaging (IM) into pervasive messaging. We all should be pushing for open, universal IM standards for one simple reason: Your customers will demand it.
As with everything else in Silicon Valley, the IM space is already valuable real estate and will only increase in price. IM is emerging as a significant communications channel.
Thanks to the attractive combination of the instantaneous conversational style of IRC (Internet Relay Chat), while preserving some of the asynchrony and persistence of email, IM has the potential to be the telephone of the 21st century: a ubiquitous, baseline communications tool. In other words, pervasive messaging.
More functionality is being layered into the IM model, from virtual meeting tools to VOIP (voice over IP) technology. I suspect VOIP will catch fire via IM. No matter how you slice it, IM will become a significant nexus of communications technology.
So your customers are going to start using IM to interact with your company. They'll want to make orders via IM and talk to customer service reps with IM.
Managing IM for a company will be tricky no matter what -- just as fun as managing an effective call centre. Customers will place the emphasis on the instant in instant messaging, and woe to the company that doesn't react promptly to customers.
So, after the inherent difficulty of managing IM, who wants to hassle with technology standards issues? Customers won't be interested in whether Yahoo Messenger can communicate with someone on America Online's AIM or MSN Messenger. They'll just want you to get their message and answer it.
Which means you'll be saving a lot of overhead if you can just commit to the IM platform that best meets your needs and inter-operates with anybody who needs to send your company a message.
The IM pressure is only going to grow. The wireless future is coming, and about the only thing that seems clear is that people will demand the ability to send IMs from their wireless devices. Instant messaging and wireless are being talked about in the same breath. IDC estimates that there will be 43 million wireless IM users by 2004.
So, with such valuable property, it's no wonder that companies such as AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo have been tussling over it.
Now the IM players are basically lining up to take potshots at AOL over IM. After last year's IM battles and no small amount of scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission, a truculent AOL delivered in June a proposal for Open Messaging to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
With its touted 91 million IM users, AOL is the big dog in this fight, so all the Chihuahuas are banding together. An organisation named IMUnified was launched at the end of July, with a membership that includes a laundry list of IM players: Yahoo, MSN, Excite, and AT&T, as well as iCAST, Odigo, Phone.com, Prodigy, and Tribal Voice. Basically, everybody except -- surprise -- AOL.
The stated goal of IMUnified is immediate interoperability in IM and to be the first to capitalize on whatever standard the IETF develops.
In other words, as an IM standard winds its way through the tortuous standards process, IMUnified will kludge together something to make Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, et alia work together, hoping to leapfrog AOL and its user base. Then, when the IETF presents the messaging standard, IMUnified can debut a compliant messenger and become the de facto application.
As IM becomes a pervasive communications medium, universal interoperability will be critical. As much fun as it is to kick around AOL, let's not forget to invite them to the IM party.
Although promising in many respects, it's hard not to see IMUnified as the "Get AOL Club." Many technology standards issues are balanced on the razor's edge between network effects and vendor-specific advantage.
Open standards are a good thing -- the Internet is one big endorsement for the power of open over proprietary. But every vendor wants a unique advantage. Just don't forget the customers.
Sean M. Dugan is senior research editor at InfoWorld. Send email to email@example.com.