LOLing at IM

At one time, instant messaging was the killer app of unified communications. IP-enabling the PBX brought the promise of convergence. Voicemail and email converged first, into unified messaging. Then came IM and presence, and the UC revolution began.

Savvy consumers were already familiar with IM thanks to the popularity of AOL, Skype, and many other Internet applications. By combining IM with presence our communications became more efficient. Instant messaging emerged as a new efficient form of communications, more urgent than email and less intrusive than phone calls. Presence was, and remains, largely triggered by keyboard activity. It signaled that people were in their offices, which loosely translated to being available.

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Enterprise communications vendors saw presence as a means to improve communications. Voicemail was a fallback option for attempting to reach someone who wasn't there. Why call someone who isn't at his or her desk? Presence enabled us to only call when someone was there. Several vendors made it possible to start with IM and promote the conversation to voice or video as appropriate.

UC IM was an extraordinary innovation, but it failed to mature with technical advances. The basic concept of messaging is alive and well -- even flourishing (WhatsApp, Cisco Spark, Unify Circuit, RingCentral Glip, WeChat, Line, Yammer, Slack, HipChat, etc.) -- but UC-related IM remains largely limited to internal organizational communications.

Using federation, some UC IM/presence solutions do support more than one organization. This is generally either accomplished via networking to same brand UC systems or enabled through a gateway or intermediary service. Both approaches require setup and administration.

Over time, the concept of presence/availability changed, too. Initially, presence meant in-office, but then people started working remotely. Presence soon simply signaled online, but was still based on keyboard activity. Presence is no longer associated with a location, nor does it reliably signal actual availability. Realistically we are always connected today with our smartphones, and availability is very difficult to reliably ascertain from either calendar appointments or keyboard activity.

However, the internal limitation is what really dooms UC IM. Our workplaces have changed – our expectations and attitudes about both work locations and our teams has changed significantly. Today it is much more likely for teams to include participants from outside the organization. Here are five drivers:

A real shift has occurred in the way our society views and accepts independent contractors. Not long ago, such work was the exception, and required some form of explanation or justification. Today, organizations like Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb cite their relationships with contractors as their competitive edges. Services like Odesk, Etsy, and Elance create a marketplace of independent talent.

If you want to IM with colleagues outside of your organization, chances are your UC system won't help. Skype for Business, given its integration with consumer Skype, is the big exception. Most services, including Skype, WeChat, and Google Hangouts, do not offer open integration with enterprise UC IM systems.

If your organization is still living on a UC IM platform, consider upgrading to an enterprise workstream messaging solution. Unfortunately, most of these systems are themselves islands, but at least an island that can extend across organizational boundaries. These enterprise-class solutions offer numerous benefits over consumer-oriented messaging tools such as persistence, search, and integration with corporate directories.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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