IM is over-rated, apparently

Sometime I despair.

According to an article on the BBC News website, IM is apparently “in trouble”. In trouble? How can a technology be “in trouble”? It’s either useful, and used, or not useful and not used. IM is a fundamental technology of the internet, and is in no more trouble now than it ever has been.

The misunderstanding, I’ll be generous here, seems to stem from a mistaken belief that IM and email are competing technologies. People who should know better have assessed that as both are ways to communicate with other people, they must be alternatives to each other. It’s just not true.

IM is ideal when you want to say something directly to one or a few people as if you were talking to them. The clue is in the “instant” bit. It allows conversations consisting of generally short statements. Email, although it may in this modern age be almost as instant, is for communication of lengthier ideas or more detailed information. Email allows you to corral your thoughts, carefully lay out and edit your thoughts, before pressing “send”. IM is more off-the-cuff, less structured.

With the advent of persistent messaging, which is IM with centralised storage of all messages, you might say the line is blurring somewhat. I disagree. Although the fact that your message might be recorded for posterity, perhaps searchable by your friends/colleagues, should make you more cautious about what you type the basic reason for IM remains to facilitate two-way dialogs. With persistence and embedding into social networking technologies it is becoming more powerful than ever.

In business, IM is more important today than it has ever been. It is fundamental to Unified Communications. It can save on email overload and reach busy colleagues when the phone might be constantly off the hook.

It is true, though, that IM has had its issues. Years of dispute over standards haven’t helped – but with XMPP that is now over. Communication between providers has been patchy – it still is. But with XMPP, and a greater take-up of IM by enterprises, federation of corporate IM systems is gradually improving. It will not be long before everyone has IM, and everyone will be able to reach everyone else. Then it will be truely powerful.

One barrier that remains is mobile use. SMS is ubiquitous, but IM will replace it. SMS is too limited – it only works effectively mobile to mobile, and doesn’t tie into IM systems except through complicated add-ons. What’s the point of that? IM for mobile needs some more work – I get complaints that my Android GoogleTalk client is forever advertising me as available and not available as I get and lose mobile signal. It’s easy to resolve, and I’m sure soon it will be.

So my lesson for today is this: do not for one moment dismiss IM, it is a fundamental UC technology. Put it in your armoury alongside email, the telephone, video and the coffee machine. It’s going to become essential to corporate life.

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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