Deal with instant messaging right now

Email. It's so last century, you know? I've already moved on. I'm hip and trendy and with it and am a dedicated instant messenger.

Email. It's so last century, you know?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan, what with the viruses and the spam and the attachments that don't work. Yeah, right.

(Here's the thing with attachments -- why bother? I get dozens of them each day, usually attached to empty emails with the subject line "press release". So not only am I supposed to open each and every one to see whether or not it's even relevant to my industry/reporting round/country/language, but I run the risk of getting some nasty bug at the same time. Nine times out of 10 the attachment is plain text anyway, so why bother attaching it? Cut and paste, damn your eyes. I get the urge to write "we don't accept attachments, please send as plain text" and attach it to an empty email marked "see attached response" but that would be bad.)

No, I've already moved on. I'm hip and trendy and with it and am a dedicated instant messenger.

Instant messaging (IM) is increasing in popularity even as we speak and, unfortunately for you, it's probably already punching holes in your carefully constructed defences. Antivirus software doesn't tend to look too closely at IM any more than it does peer-to-peer applications, and in the same way your users can open up your network to all manner of nasties, firewall or no.

It's like the early days of the PDA -- do you remember how IT managers scoffed at these toys and anyone buying one and attaching it to their own PC did so at their own cost? IT departments have found themselves supporting a hodgepodge of PDAs installed in a variety of manners by individuals who now can't be shifted from the belief that theirs is the best way, and your "johnny come lately" approach to their PDA and its data can go jump.

Be assured that instant messaging is here already. Your users are either installing their own without your consent or are about to, so something needs to be done. now.

Security should be your main concern with these apps -- that and their flaky nature knocking over your carefully constructed bandwidth-use models. As well, think about the in-house knowledge your staff have and how easy it is to pass that data on to outsiders, without even being aware they're doing it. Think about how user names don't have to reflect the true nature of the user. Think about file transfers that you may have blocked on email still working on IM, which raises several legal issues as well.

Fortunately, while it's being used within corporates, it's early days for IM as a bona fide corporate tool. True, every vendor's getting in on it. ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger or MSN Messenger, even Lotus' own Notes system has Sametime, an IM component for the corporate. A few corporate strength-ones are trickling out. The negative is that multiple platforms don't interoperate smoothly, although the come-one-come-all likes of Jabber and Trillian are helping out on that score. The positive is that there isn't the critical mass needed to really write an unpleasant virus that nails your system while nobody's looking, though the clock is ticking on that one, I think. Imagine a virus getting into your system that your AV system doesn't see.

So what should your plan be?

First, you'll need to identify just what it is about IM that attracts the users in the first place. You may be able to solve the problem without allowing IM on your system -- say, if it's a communication issue between branches or departments.

For myself it's a speedy way of telling whether the person I need to talk to is at their keyboard or not. If no, then I can ask someone else or wait or whatever is appropriate. If they're online I can get an instant response to my query, no matter where they are. IDG's London bureau is home to former Computerworld NZ staffer Gillian Law, and we can catch up in those morning or evening hours where our days overlap. Indeed, IDG's global news service allows us to contact the duty editor via AOL Messenger. Much easier and speedier than firing off an email, unsure whether the person at the other end is even on duty today or not.

For remote workers this is a godsend. As I have noted before, I can be up with the play even when I'm in my dressing gown. It's just a pity my boss hasn't jumped on the bandwagon. Actually, it may be a good thing that my bosses haven't cottoned on to IM just yet. In fact, why don't you forget I said anything about it. Anything at all.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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