Instant messaging has stolen its way into big business, often without the official sanction of IT departments.

Designed from the outset as a consumer technology, instant messaging providers, including AOL and Microsoft Network, make it easy for individuals to download and install their software and to activate user accounts.

Now, the lessons learned from consumer instant messaging are starting to transform the corporate desktop.

Knowledge workers in particular like instant messaging software because it is a quick and easy way to share information and files. But more importantly, instant messaging allows someone to see whether a colleague is online.

This “presence” information will form a keystone for the next generation of desktop software and communications applications.

An industry standard, known as the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), will allow users of applications such as customer relationship management or enterprise resource planning (ERP) as well as e-mail and voice telephony, to establish the status of another user. Both parties can then pick the best way to communicate.

Applications built around SIP promise to be more robust and scalable than instant messaging software intended primarily for consumers. While company IT departments see the value of instant messaging and presence-based communications, they want security and user management features that are simply not on offer in consumer messaging tools.

As the world’s largest provider of desktop software, Microsoft is betting heavily on both presence and real-time communications for the next version of its Office suite (Office 12), as well as for enhancements that it will build into the next version of Windows, known as Vista.

The company has already launched tools that it thinks will change the way we communicate from the desktop, and mobile devices.

Microsoft’s approach to the market is built around two core technologies: Office Communicator 2005, a desktop application, and Microsoft Office Live Communications Server, which will provide the back end, as well as give companies a platform for building their own presence-based applications.

Microsoft also sees LiveMeeting, the web conferencing platform it acquired in 2003, and VoIP as part of its real time collaboration strategy.

“Technical changes are causing a big shift from individual productivity to collaboration. There is also a shift from internal collaboration to collaboration across boundaries,” says Anoop Gupta, vice-president at Microsoft’s real-time collaboration (RTC) business unit. The proliferation of mobile devices is also changing the way that knowledge workers think about communications.

Moving communications technologies to IP networks is a prerequisite for Microsoft’s view of collaboration, but according to Mr Gupta other technologies, particularly SIP, are critical. But the greatest impact will be on the way it changes how people collaborate.

Microsoft calls it “rich presence-based communication”. It expects it to have far-reaching implications not just for voice or even video communications, but also for office productivity applications.

“At a simple level, you will be looking not just at an instant messaging application but calendar and location information. That will make a big difference in communication, especially when you are collaborating across time zones,” says Mr Gupta.

“It will also be person-centric, independent of whether the person is at their desk or using a cellular device.”

For example, typing a colleague’s address into Outlook would automatically call up their presence status; right-clicking the mouse will open an instant messaging session. Right-clicking again will convert that session into a voice or video call.

Dragging and dropping the screen name of a colleague automatically turns the conversation into a three-way conference call.

Microsoft believes that these so-called “screen calls” will prove highly popular, but it is also working with a range of telephony system vendors to integrate their hardware with its RTC servers.

According to Mr Gupta, all this can be achieved with relatively little additional hardware.

A small business could potentially run the collaboration engine on its existing Exchange server, although companies with more demanding requirements will need dedicated hardware.

Bowne Global Solutions was an early user of the Communicator 2005 technology. The company, which is based in Dublin, provides translation, interpretation and localisation services for customers around the world.

“The software offers us two things,” says Kevin Graham, corporate systems engineer at BGS.

“Our project managers have real-time collaboration with their teams, but there are also cost savings for those teams keeping in touch with each other.

“For us, the project was driven by cost-savings and efficiency.”

For Mr Bowne, an early benefit was a reduction in the time it takes to solve problems. Mr Graham attributes this to the presence-based features of Communicator 2005.

“Previously, somebody might have been dropping an e-mail into the abyss,” he says. “Now you can see if someone is online.”

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