Xtra takes the IM message to heart

Shane Ohlin, formerly IT manager at Xtra but now at its Telecom parent, is passionate about instant messaging. So much so that he wanted to conduct his interview with Computerworld using Microsoft's MSN Messenger.

Shane Ohlin, formerly IT manager at Xtra but now at its Telecom parent, is passionate about instant messaging. So much so that he wanted to conduct his interview with Computerworld using Microsoft‘s MSN Messenger.

Of course technology got in the way and this reporter had trouble getting a Microsoft Passport, a necessity when signing on for the messaging service (secretly she was quite pleased about this as she didn’t relish the idea of Microsoft holding information about her). So the interview had to be done the old fashioned way — over the phone.

Of course, Xtra has an interest in seeing IM proliferate. It gives its customers another reason to use the internet. About a year ago the ISP forged a portal deal with Microsoft to provide MSN services on its website. Ohlin says the company started using MSN Messenger about six months prior to that.

“We try and keep our ears to the ground and play around with things. It’s part of our culture. We’d been looking at different messaging tools and had some people using Yahoo. We had all of them installed informally but when we were negotiating MSN we started to gravitate towards MSN Messenger. Once we did the deal the others started to drop away and we started to promote it within Xtra. We don’t have a mandate to install it. It’s more viral.”

Ohlin is relaxed about staff using IM for personal reasons. “I use it more for business and I guess that’s true for most people.”

Ohlin doesn’t think the huge growth in messaging affecting networks at this stage.

“Most people are using it for simple text chat. Companies are trying to bring in other services such as video and voice but my personal experience is that most people aren’t using that. Most people’s work PCs aren’t geared up with microphones for voice. I find it easier to pick up the phone.”

Ohlin mostly uses IM to talk to peers and other senior managers. He has converted many people to the product and it has also filtered into Telecom, he says.

“They know when I’m back at the desk and it’s a good way to catch people who are in a lot of meetings. That’s why it’s been so valuable. It gives you the opportunity to catch people and bounce some ideas off them.”

As far as concerns about productivity go Ohlin doesn’t see a problem.

“I recall when colour monitors and Windows first came out. The IT manager I worked for thought either concept was a productivity destroyer because people would be sitting staring at the screen and playing with the controls all day long. It’s the same today. It’s no different to bumping into someone in the corridor and asking what they did in the weekend. We don’t ban that at work. Once the novelty factor wears off it’s a great business tool.”

Ohlin is also at ease about security risks with instant messaging.

“The risk is manageable. Microsoft and others are working to produce secure and company focused versions. If and when MSN comes out with a corporate version we’ll switch over to that. People want a VPN version where you can have a secure conversation, point to point or across a group.

“People need to be sensible about the stuff they’re saying across this service. It’s pushing its way into Telecom and they’re very cautious about this stuff.”

He says out of the 180 staff within Xtra he’d be surprised if most people aren’t installed with it.

Ohlin is excited about future application of the technology in the business world.

“It’s the sort of thing that could be very interesting if you have a fairly tight circle of key suppliers or customers, which a lot of people do. I think there is the potential for aspects of video, application sharing and whiteboarding.

“And it’s going to expand beyond desktop PCs. I’ve seen PDAs with data connections to cellular networks running instant messaging. If I can justify it I fully intend to get a data-connected PDA at some point in the near future.”

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