IM's Office Place

I’ll admit it. I’m not an Instant Messenger (IM) maven. I don’t have enough friends, and not enough of those friends have IDs I can remember to put into a “buddy list.” Still, when I’m working closely with someone, or I’m part of a small team, IM can be a good tool, because it’s faster than email and less intrusive to my attention than a phone call.

IM is, however, one of the more important Internet technologies of 1999, because it doesn’t take much bandwidth, it’s widely available (mainly through AOL), and kids love it. As kids have grown into college students, low-grade employees and (finally) start-up entrepreneurs, they have taken their Instant Messenger “Buddy Lists” with them. Technologies that bubble up from the bottom, rather than being imposed from the top, are well worth examining closely.

Of course, kids don’t want to pay for anything (that’s what makes them such a lucrative market). IM’s growth until now has been driven entirely by advertising. The question is how do you turn this into a business tool?

In this regard, the name that keeps popping into my head is Novell. Novell has a deal with America Online to use Instant Messenger; its directory is considered first-rate, and under Eric Schmidt the company seems to have its relationship with Microsoft settled. (The same can’t be said of Sun, the other name that leapt to mind.) The biggest problem is that Microsoft’s directory doesn’t work well with Novell’s, but if Microsoft would give a little (in order to access the AOL user base), we’d have the beginnings of a solution.

In action, a business-oriented IM would have all your co-workers on all your projects available, and color-coded (for your PC) by project. Operations between directories would have to be a no-brainer, regardless of your company’s Internet platform. Your payment would go out as part of the software bundle IM capability came with-maybe Microsoft Office, maybe Novell’s NetWare, maybe Sun’s Netscape. Whether you’d need an ad there isn’t as important a question as some small vendors seem to think because, frankly, the software won’t come from them-it will come from system vendors.

For me, it would be great to get quick editing questions from ClickZ editors via Instant Messenger -I could answer most without interrupting my work, and deal with the rest via email. For my wife (who unlike me works for a living), IM could be useful, too – maybe her office would become less crowded, and she could get more work done.

The important point about IM in the workplace is that it takes just a portion of your screen, and should take just a portion of your attention. It should take much less of the industry’s attention than it does, and if the system vendors would simply get together on it that’s what will happen. It’s a good thing, but only if everyone’s available through it, only if the capability is basic to all machines, and only if it stays in the background, not just of workers’ minds but those of system administrators.

Hopefully that’s all I’ll ever have to say about Instant Messenger. Make the final note on this: Nike’s. Don’t talk about it-just do it.

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