Q&A: Instant Messaging Milestone for Real-Time Communications Strategy

REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 9, 2002 — Instant messaging (IM) is no longer just a communication tool used to socialize on the Web. Enabling real-time communications between workers, and allowing individuals to know instantly if coworkers are available, is quickly gaining acceptance within the corporate environment. However, the benefits for enterprises — more efficient collaboration and access to important information — can also pose management and infrastructure challenges.

To mitigate many of these challenges and expand the utility of IM and presence-based solutions for enterprises, Microsoft has developed a real-time communications (RTC) strategy, and plans to release a new real-time communications platform, codenamed “Greenwich,” in mid-2003. The first major step in its RTC strategy is the release of MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises. The service will help companies effectively manage and extend MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger beyond the corporate firewall to customers and consumers.

PressPass spoke with Katy Hunter , group product manager for Greenwich, about MSN Messenger Connect and upcoming developments in the companys RTC strategy, including “Greenwich.”

PressPass: What is the current landscape for corporate instant messaging?

Hunter: The marketplace for enterprise IM is growing at a record rate and is putting a strain on corporate IT departments. According to recent studies by IDC and Ostermann Research, 200 million people worldwide use IM today, and it is predicted that this number will grow to 500 million by 2006. Among corporations, 84 percent reported information workers use IM, but the majority of these users access IM via private applications that are not endorsed by the company. This number is expected to grow to 93 percent by September 2003.

The rapid increase in IM use by information workers has raised concerns in many IT departments about security and manageability of these IM applications and the information they transmit. The initial reaction among many has been to carefully study and restrict the spread of this new communications tool. In fact, about 23 percent of companies have chosen to block IM traffic altogether, mainly because of security and manageability concerns. Our goal is to ensure that IM can be used in the corporate setting as a tool to raise information worker productivity, while also providing IT staff an instant messaging solution and platform they’re comfortable deploying.

PressPass: What are Microsofts IM offerings today, and how do these offerings fit into the broad RTC initiative?

Hunter: At Microsoft, we see RTC as a very broad series of offerings that extend from the consumer markets across to enterprise. On one end, we have server solutions for enterprise IM. Today, these include Exchange 2000 IM. Beginning next year, we will offer “Greenwich” in the Windows Server platform. “Greenwich” is technology for creating and managing IM and presence-based communication applications — applications that can determine if a person with IM is available at their computer or online device.

MSN offers the .NET Messenger Service, which has grown steadily in popularity since it was introduced in July 1999. In addition, we look to MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger as the easy-to-use and familiar clients for all IM customers. Finally, the MSN group is delivering the MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises service in conjunction with software partners FaceTime and IMlogic, which will provide enterprises with a managed IM environment for communicating with their customers. In addition, Reuters, another industry partner, offers Reuters Messaging Service, an offering focused on the financial-services community.

PressPass: How will MSN Messenger Connect be different from the MSN Messenger application that people have on their home computers?

Hunter: MSN Messenger is the instant-messaging client about 75 million customers use today for real-time communication and collaboration. IM users have real-time conversations, and also can work together with features like shared browsing and file exchanging.

In an enterprise environment, these are great features, but companies also need to be able to track and monitor these communications just as they can with e-mail. MSN Messenger Connect works behind the scenes to manage and log IM conversations between enterprise users and their customers using the Messenger client .

An example of a scenario where MSN Messenger Connect delivers significant value is a brokerage firm that wants to use IM to complete trade transactions with consumers. Today, if you call brokerages, you’ll often get an automated message, and you may go into a queue, or an e-mail transaction is captured and logged. This can be a frustrating situation for customers that need help immediately. If a brokerage can offer IM communication in a managed environment where they can log the conversation in a circumstance like this, they can offer much better service for their customers.

Organizations outside of the financial arena are also looking for the same kind of functionality with IM — they want to be able to log and audit the messages and transactions between their representatives and their consumers.

Companies also want to ensure that their customers are confident and trust IM communications. When a customer contacts a company or sees an IM from a corporate IM address, they want the assurance that it is actually a representative of the company they are communicating with.

MSN Messenger Connect helps businesses provide this by managing the use of their public domain — or namespace — so that unauthorized third parties cannot use the IM domain to pose as a representative of that company. This “”managed namespace” means customers can have confidence that they are conducting transactions with a representative of a particular company. For example, my namespace would be katy@microsoft.com.

PressPass: Tell me more about “Greenwich” and how it fits into Microsofts overall RTC initiative.

Hunter: The “Greenwich” platform will not only provide a standards-based corporate IM solution, but will support next generation RTC experiences that bring together the worlds of IM, audio and video conferencing, telephony, and collaboration applications.

The overarching goal of the RTC strategy is to make communications as easy and intuitive as possible to help maximize corporate productivity. With “Greenwich,” we focus on providing a platform that lets people work, communicate, and collaborate from a central environment. At the same time, one of the long term goals of “Greenwich” is to make real-time communication and collaboration a part of every application, with one method being smooth integration with all of the Microsoft Office applications.

“Greenwich” is all about industry standards. We will interoperate in a standards-based environment with MSN Messenger via MSN Messenger Connect, Windows Messenger and any other communications application. This also makes it easier for third parties to extend communications capabilities with an independently developed, interoperable application. This approach will meet our ultimate objective: helping our enterprise customers use real-time communication to increase productivity by integrating communication and collaboration for information workers.

PressPass: What is the relationship between MSN Messenger Connect and “Greenwich”?

Hunter: There are a couple of different pieces that come under the real time communications strategy umbrella. MSN Messenger Connect bridges IM communications between the enterprise and customers outside a companys firewall.

“Greenwich” is also a component to the real time communications strategy; it not only consolidates communications into a central, secure platform but provides a way to integrate presence-based technology into an IM network and across any line of business solution. This allows the user to ask, “What could I do when I know a person with whom I need to do business s available?” “Greenwich” will provide a delivery mechanism for real-time alerts, which could be something as simple as “Machine A is out of red paint.” It finds and informs the person available who is most able to deal with an issue. This presence-based technology, the ability to see whether people are available to communicate with you or not, and vice versa, is the core of how real-time communications can change the way people work and use computers in their day-to-day life.

When “Greenwich” is delivered, MSN Messenger Connect will take advantage of several new capabilities within the “Greenwich” platform, including expanded manageability and administration capabilities.

PressPass: Where does Microsoft see instant messaging and real-time communication going from here?

Hunter: Microsofts global real-time communication strategy focuses on three primary issues. First, we want to provide the technology to enable enterprise IM. Second, we want to create an infrastructure that enables a complete IM solution that encompasses a variety of communication mediums. And finally, we want to create a rich platform from which Microsoft and industry partners can develop real-time applications.

From there, we see new real-time scenarios being developed — integrating phones or real-time work collaboration solutions — anything that our industry partners can imagine with presence and collaborative elements.

Developing “Greenwich” means that users will be able to count on a great client experience, expanding from text to richer media in their communications. This will include video and voice, along with text and application sharing. In conjunction with the real-time communications enabled by enhanced IM, there will be more services such as MSN Messenger Connect.

In future versions of MSN Messenger Connect, we will interoperate and take advantage of the standards-based environment provided by “Greenwich,” and provide new and better ways to use IM communications to bridge enterprises to their consumer customers. When you look around at what’s already being developed and deployed in the enterprise, there are some really interesting prospects that should have a very positive impact on how organizations conduct business and meet their bottom lines.