Bye-bye Buddy List?

Is corporate IM on the way out? That's something I started to wonder a while back as messaging apps of the persistent, rather than instant, variety started to crop up.

At first team collaboration apps were -- and in many cases remain -- ancillary. They're deployed alongside UC clients, which combine voice, video, and IM, to deliver a different kind of app for a different kind of collaboration experience. This confused customers wondering which app to use when, and led to complex diagrams trying to sort things out. Once you got your head around it, the positioning is clear:

  • UC clients with their inherent corporate IM capabilities for quick and immediate chats about anything and everything
  •    -So, Avaya Equinox, Cisco Jabber, Microsoft Skype for Business, Mitel MiCollab client

  • Team collaboration clients with their persistent messaging capabilities for collaborative sessions about a particular project or topic
  •    -So, Avaya Zang Spaces, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams, Mitel MiTeam client

This has all been well and good as long as the apps stay separate. But that's not always the case. At least one major UC vendor is in the process of consolidating its messaging apps, with team collaboration winning out over traditional buddy list-driven IM.

To document IM's rise and explain what seems to be its impending fall, I pored over ancient manuscripts that our ancestors called "eZines" -- some dating as far back as 2003 -- because many of the issues that established IM as a workplace technology back in the day are ushering in its replacement today.

Rise of Corporate IM

In 2003, IM was mainly, though not exclusively, a consumer technology. AOL Instant Messenger enjoyed the lion's share, with nearly 60 million users compared with MSN Messenger's 23 million and Yahoo Messenger's 20 million. "Once viewed primarily as a secret language used by teenagers," IM started to wheedle its way into the workplace in early years of the new century.

IM was unfamiliar enough that we resorted to awkward comparisons -- "the digital equivalent of the venerable CB radio" -- to describe it. But for certain pockets of employees "the speed and convenience of instant messaging (IM) has been irresistible," particularly for those needing "to keep in constant contact with remote colleagues."

Spontaneous use of consumer IM clients in the workplace made IT uneasy. CIOs worried that IM provided "little or nothing in the way of security." Corporate attorneys worried about IMs not being archived, and providing unmonitored channels of communications that would lead to legal trouble if, for example, employees utilized "IM messaging to make statements that could later be construed as warranties or public statements subject to securities regulation."

In many cases IT shut down the applications whenever possible, even if blocking IMs was "like playing the arcade game Whack-a-Mole." But IT couldn't deny its usefulness in business settings. Businesses saw IM as "a cutting-edge, productivity-enhancing tool" that was "more versatile than other real-time [communications] alternatives" provided by IT. And at least one company -- forward thinking Avnet Computer Marketing -- had eyed IM "as an email replacement."

Microsoft was by no means first with an IT-friendly alternative to AIM and the rest. As far as I can tell, that distinction goes to IBM, whose Lotus group introduced Sametime way back in 1999. AOL and Yahoo cottoned on and launched short-lived enterprise versions of their consumer IM services in 2002. Microsoft's response was at first scattershot. It made IM a feature in Exchange, folded separate IM technology into Windows XP, introduced a comms API that included IM, and announced a dedicated IM server codenamed Greenwich. Ultimately its strategy focused around Greenwich, subsequently branded Live Communication Server (LCS) and whose "March of Progress" path led directly to Office Communications Server (OCS), OCS R2, Lync, and, finally, Skype for Business.

Though there were (and are) plenty of other apps, LCS thrust corporate IM into the mainstream. Microsoft did this not only by introducing a point product, but by folding it into the Office suite for immediate availability to millions of businesses. And in time Microsoft made IM the centerpiece of its larger UC strategy: The IM server is the corporate telephony platform. If you want the latter, you start with the former.

Click to Page 2: Fall of Corporate IM?