In a given year, the average American teenager and young adult will spend 868 hours (36 days) online. Roughly 20 percent of this time is spent IM (IM). One recent study showed that of the 24 million U.S. teens that go online, one in five, or about 5 million, considers IM their primary means of communicating with their friends. Why are so may young Americans hooked on this technology? What can the American business man or woman learn from his/her son or daughter? If IM is such an important form of private communication in America, is there room for it in the American workplace? Can IM be an efficient and profitable means of conducting business? Or is IM just another type of electronic communication gadget along with e-mail, voice mail, paging, Blackberries, and cellular?
IM: WHAT IS IT AND WHY DOES IT MATTER??
IM (IM) is technology that has changes our world to the same degree as voicemail and email. IM is the voice of the internet and perhaps the best kept secret of business technology. IM allows users to ‘talk’ in real-time with each other through short text messages sent over the internet. These messages can be between only two users, or any larger number of users through the use of a chat room. A chat room is software that allows a group of people to type in messages that can be seen by everyone in the virtual room. To make contact with another person, IM users create a “buddy list” by adding screen names to a list. Anyone using the same IM program can be put on the buddy list and may be contacted. The buddy list advises the user when his buddies are signed on and available to chat.
IM has been wildly popular in American homes since 1996. That was when Mirabilis, a small Israeli internet communication company, introduced ICQ, the first free instant messaging utility. ICQ stood for “I seek you.” Get it? Since 1996, three companies, AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, have become the ‘big three’ in IM communication with the releases of their free IM utilities, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger, respectively. These free software programs make it easy for anyone with an internet connection to join the worldwide online IM community. While many providers have developed IM utilities (which are not free) specifically for business use, the overwhelming majority of IM users use one of the free programs, even at work. Currently, AOL Instant Messenger leads the way with about 32 million users, followed closely by MSN Messenger with about 30 million users. Yahoo! Messenger provides IM services for 19 million users.
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IM has made significant inroads into the American workplace. Business people are taking notice of the advantages IM can offer. Roughly 26 percent of American companies now use IM as an official corporate communication service, and an additional 44 percent have employees that use IM on their own. What is it about IM technology that has so many companies adopting IM as a serious business tool? The most obvious and attractive advantage of this technology, and the thing that appeals to most business people, is its immediacy.
IM allows for informal and spontaneous conversation between co-workers, precisely the type of communication that is becoming less and less available as e-mail has become such a huge part of the corporate landscape and we find ourselves spending more time sitting in front of the computer. There is just not as much reason anymore to get up and have “real time” conversations. Everything we need to get through the workday is sitting in front of us in the form of a personal computer. IM is the next best thing to standing in the hallway and discussing work. As technology grows, we will have even more tools at our fingertips to keep us from walking to a co-worker’s office. IM provides a real time conversation while only being an “alt tab” keystroke away from other software tools.
Speaking of the co-worker down the hall, if we did have a spark of inspiration and decide to walk down that long hall to discuss the latest contract or advertising idea, how do we know if our colleague is even in the office? An e-mail asking if someone is available could take much longer to receive and respond to than the busy workday allows. IM utilities, through the ‘buddy list’, instantly tells us when our ‘buddies’ are at the computer, waiting to be sent an IM or paid a visit in the office. In many cases, this presence awareness feature is more important to workplace IM users than online chat itself.
As useful as IM can be to co-workers right down the hall or in the same office, it is likely most important to those co-workers who are not in the same office. Geographically distributed teams constantly face communication problems. There is no substitute for the time when co-workers simply “kick things around” as a group to get a project completed or a deal closed. It is just not feasible for this type of communication to take place between teams with members located far apart. Some types of real-time communication, such as long-distance telephone calls and video conferencing, are too expensive and can be intrusive and bothersome. IM relieves these problems through free unlimited real time communication. IM can help workers meet deadlines and solve unexpected problems through instant communication and feedback, something we cannot get from e-mail.
Is all the news about IM good? Is it all roses and honey? Of course not. Care must be taken to limit the amount of confidential information sent via IM, and IM can certainly be abused by employees. Like all aspects of business, IM offers advantages and disadvantages.
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Most of us have been there before; we finally find time in the busy work day to sit down and actually get some work done when it happens, the unavoidable and seemingly uncontrollable periodic e-mail check. Just as things were settled down and real work was about to take place, we find ourselves 10 minutes, 20 minutes, a half hour into reading and replying to short questions from friends and co-workers, reading the latest e-mail joke of the day, or deleting the piles of junk mail from a personal e-mail account accessed from work. For all of the added efficiency that e-mail has brought into our lives, that efficiency seems to be outweighed by the distraction email has become.
IM has the potential to become just as distracting as email, if no more so. No matter how much we try to ignore it, the temptation to drop a quick IM to a friend or co-worker, or to respond to one of the same, is always present. Through its immediacy, IM tends to create an atmosphere suitable to long conversations that can stray far away from the major points and quickly eat away time. Most telephone conversations, especially those in the workplace, invoke some sense of urgency. We tend to attempt to get the information that we need and conclude the phone call. Telephone conversations inhibit our ability to do other things, such as carry on a conversation with a person standing in the room or fully concentrate on work sitting on the desk in front of us. IM does not induce such a sense of urgency. It allows a user to momentarily turn away from the conversation to do something else without losing the natural flow of what is being discussed. This lack of urgency can make conversations by IM much longer than those by phone.
What about IM as compared to e-mail? Is IM just hyped-up e-mail? The major problems with IM, problems that are not presented to the same degree with e-mail, are virus susceptibility and lack of confidentiality. IMs are insecure transmissions and they may be the next big internet virus threat.
Most viruses sent by e-mail cannot infect a computer unless an attachment or other malicious file is opened. Also, most anti-virus programs check incoming email for viruses. The virus danger that IM presents is from “blended threat” viruses. These are viruses that attack and exploit specific software vulnerability. They do not need any help to spread (such as the opening of an attachment) because they find “holes” in the software and attack them instantly. While all software contains holes that could allow a blended threat infection, IM software is especially dangerous because of its prolonged exposure to the internet.
“On any given day, there are probably only a few minutes when a virus could exploit a vulnerability on your e-mail client. The chances are that you open your e-mail client for only a few minutes, pull down the latest messages, and then close it. But your IM client is generally open and running all day long, ready to receive messages at any point. This makes it much easier for someone to piggyback a virus on an IM and exploit the client’s vulnerabilities. And thanks to your IM ‘buddy list,’ an IM blended threat could spread with inordinate speed. Past speed demons like Code Red and Slammer spread by systematically scanning the Internet for vulnerable hosts. But an instant-messaging blended threat wouldn’t have to do that. After infecting one IM client, it could just send itself to everyone on the client’s buddy list.”
The other major IM security issue is confidentiality. IMs are generally very easy to intercept and, because they are transmitted in plain text (rather than in encrypted text), they can be read by the person intercepting them. While IM encryption software is available, it is not free. Because of the cost IM encryption is rarely used. Any discussions conducted over the free IM services should be assumed to be public conversations. Therefore, in the workplace IM messages should carry the standard confidentiality messages that are used in email. Of course, you can see that it can be impractical to include such a warning message in every IM conversation.
Another area where IM lags behind e-mail is its record keeping abilities. When using one of the free IM providers, once the conversation is over and the program is closed, the messages are lost. In contrast, e-mails are stored in an Old Mail or a Sent Mail folder. IM conversations could be cut and pasted into a word processing document, but the majority of business people do not want to take the extra time to do so. Some IM products offer the option to log the chat sessions, but this requires the chat to be written to a text file on the logging computer’s hard drive. The logging feature presents more confidentiality problems because the text file can be easily accessed from the hard drive by another user, either inside or outside of the office.
Even if the chat sessions were logged, IM conversations, especially long ones, are not easy to look back upon to find information. They are written to be instantaneously read and replied to, unlike e-mail messages, which are written with the expectation that the recipient will read the message when the opportunity arises, and respond at some later time. Those different writing styles make a huge difference in the ease of rereading and the practicality of keeping useful records. An entire IM language has developed – BTW for “by the way,” BRB for “be right back,” and IMHO for “in my humble opinion” are just a few of the myriad shorthand terms used in IM.
There is an additional concern with IM in a workplace setting. IMs invite us as users to be very casual, speaking (or typing) what is on our mind that very instant. Writing an e-mail is more like sitting down to write a letter, albeit often a grammatically incorrect one with lots of misspelled words. IM is akin to a hallway conversation and can lead to embarrassing mistakes that many business people would rather not be seen by their sophisticated customers and colleagues.
Those sophisticated customers and colleagues may offer an even bigger problem for workplace IM than embarrassment over spelling mistakes. The biggest obstacle to IM becoming a serious business tool is its acceptability. This statement may seem like circular analysis. However, with software, reaching “critical mass” is the key to success. In other words a software application is not really useful until enough people are using it.
Market penetration is an important issue for IM software developers because most business people today do not feel that they need IM tools to get their work done. One reason for this perception is that IM is not a replacement for any other tool, such as the telephone or e-mail, for which there is a recognized need. Also, most business people perceive IM as a form of goofing off rather than doing any real work. Of course, whether IM in the workplace is used for working or goofing off is largely dependant on the user; but until the perceptions have changed and the critical mass of users develops, IM will remain at the end of the list of necessary business tools in the American workplace.
TO CHAT OR NOT TO CHAT, THAT IS THE QUESTION
While IM use may not be not be at 100%, employees at many companies round the world are using IM software at work every day. The question now becomes whether companies should push IM out of the workplace or encourage its use. The decision must be made carefully, and with one end result in mind: better business. It makes perfect sense for certain types of companies to use IM every day. Employees at IBM, for instance, send three million instant messages every day. They use IM for a wide range of communications – everything from keeping in touch with co-workers to answering customers’ questions. Most consumers expect that a company that manufactures and sells computers and computer software would be available via IM.
But what about other companies. As our technological society grows, so will its expectations. If these expectations push the American workplace toward instant online communication, that is where it will go. Even with all its attendant risks, IM seems to grow in popularity. It offers the big advantage of letting you communicate while you can still do other tasks on your computer. Hopefully American business people will get up from their computer occasionally and wander into the world of their teenagers. Otherwise, how will we predict the next major trend in business communication?
Russel Primeaux, a registered Patent Attorney, is a Partner with Kean Miller Hawthorne D’Armond McCowan & Jarman LLP in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has an Electrical Engineering degree from Georgia Tech and graduated, cum laude, from the University of San Diego School of Law; where he was a member of the Law Review. Mr. Primeaux’s practice includes patents, trademarks, copyrights, internet law, and trade secrets. He teaches Patent Law as an Adjunct Professor at the LSU Law School and served as Chairman of the Intellectual Property Section of the Louisiana State Bar from 1997 to 1998.