The humble beginnings of Instant Messaging (IM) never hinted that this technology would become a crucial part of the enterprise computing toolkit. But today, IM is right up there with telephony, email, fax, and even face-to-face meetings. That said, you can't just take a consumer-oriented IM application and roll it out companywide. However, a new generation of IM applications adds the security and compliance features businesses need. Here's what you need to know about business IM.

IM in the Enterprise
Generally speaking, IM lets you exchange information with others via text-based and (with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005) handwritten messages and through voice and video chats. Enterprise-class IM solutions take this functionality to a new level, combining these features with VoIP and business telephony integration to provide an all-in-one solution.

Another emerging trend is true presence information. Today, most IM applications can inform you when contacts are online or offline but rarely provide much additional information. Newer solutions inform you when a contact is using IM via a mobile device, such as a smart phone or PDA, and make unavailable conversation types that are impossible on such a device (e.g., video chats). In the future, IM will integrate deeply with telephony and related technologies so you can simply contact a user and let the system figure out the best way to do so based on where that person is and what types of conversation tools are available.

Typically, IM conversations tend to be moment-in-time affairs that are rarely remembered, let alone archived. For compliance reasons, few businesses would rely on such a system. One of the key features that enterprise-oriented IM systems add is centrally managed IM conversation archiving. Additionally, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003 provides a managed, secure environment for IM. Administrators can control who accesses the IM network, which clients can connect, and so on. This product also supports logging functionality and can be configured to prevent risky activities such as file transfer.

Microsoft's IM Initiatives
In 2001, Microsoft bundled its business-oriented Windows Messenger IM tool with Windows XP. But in recent months, a more exciting product, Microsoft Office Communicator 2005, has appeared.

Communicator 2005 integrates traditional IM capabilities with existing Microsoft Office applications and services, VoIP, PBX-based remote call control, and Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) audio conferencing. Most interesting, Communicator 2005 provides nascent presence capabilities that route conversation requests to the most appropriate client and device depending on how users are connected to the network.

Communicator 2005 works with Live Communications Server in the same way that Microsoft Outlook works with Exchange. Live Communications Server, Microsoft's server platform for real-time collaboration, will work with other IM clients, but Communicator 2005 is now the preferred client. It also provides cross-network compatibility with consumer-oriented IM services from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo!.

Recommendations
Enterprise-class IM is still in the early stages, and there are very few mature products to recommend. That said, now is the time to examine products and services that meet your needs, rather than turn to insecure consumer-class IM solutions. But don't discount IM as anything but a first-class business communications tool: It's incredibly useful and is likely to eventually replace traditional telephone-based communications.