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Microsoft’s plan to add AOL and Yahoo IM interoperability to Office Live Communications Server 2005 should finally get businesses interested in managing corporate IM use.

It’s about time! Osterman Research recently reported that IM systems are already employed in 92 percent of all enterprises. And as companies’ IT departments finally start officially recognizing IM, that will mean more business for integrators and resellers who know their way around IM.

As it does in all fields, interoperability will go a long way toward increasing business IM acceptance. LCS (Live Communications Server) 2005 will let LCS users transparently talk with AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger users for an additional fee, which has not yet been set.

In the past, Microsoft had only offered the MSN Connect service, which enabled LCS 2003 customers to communicate with MSN Messenger users. This new service is essentially an expansion of MSN Connect.

I’ve long suspected that one reason why IBM’s Lotus Instant Messaging (formerly Sametime) enterprise IM product has long been the quiet leader of business IM was that it had long offered IM links with AIM. But IBM has done a poor job of marketing Lotus Instant Messaging and its capacities, and it has never had Yahoo Messenger connectivity.

LCS 2005, which is now in beta and due out in the fourth quarter of 2004, thus has the early lead in delivering the holy grail of IM interoperability to corporate customers. It won’t, however, connect with other major IM networks such as the popular but notoriously insecure IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and the popular open-source Jabber IM system.

You may be saying, LCS? Who needs LCS! We can give our customers IM clients like Cerulean Studios’ Trillian for Windows, the open-source Gaim for Linux and Epicware Inc.’s open-source for Mac OS X, which cost nothing and offer even more interoperability., for example, connects with all of the IM networks I mentioned and the ICQ IM network to boot.

Hey, I like them, too. The ones I list above are my favorites, and I use Trillian and Gaim every day, but IM-client-only solutions are business dead-ends.

Why? It’s simple: They work by piggybacking on existing IM services’ host systems. AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft already take steps every now and again to prevent these unauthorized clients from using their services. That isn’t going to change.

So far, the clients’ programmers have always managed to recover quickly from these setbacks, but just try explaining to a business customer that the IM system you sold him was completely and legally blocked for several days until a client upgrade is available. That will go over big.

Of course, some IM systems, like IRC and Jabber, aren’t likely to block any clients. But let’s face it, if a business wants external IM interoperability, it will want AIM, Yahoo and MSN interoperability—probably in that order. In my own business IM conversations, using my multi-IM clients, 90 percent of my discussions are with AIM or Lotus Instant Messaging users, 9 percent are with Yahoo users, and every now and again, I’ll hear from someone who’s on MSN or IRC.

There’s gold in business IM, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes. Click here to read more.

Besides, from a purely business viewpoint, there’s no money to be made from clients alone anyway. To date, no one has charged for an IM client, and for that reason alone, no one ever will.

Finally, with a client-only approach, there’s no easy way to audit, monitor, secure or even manage a business customer’s IM use. No, without any way to guarantee quality of service and all of these administrative headaches, an IM-client only approach simply won’t cut it.

But that doesn’t mean you have to start working toward a Microsoft LCS IM-based solution. LCS 2005 will doubtlessly prove profitable for Microsoft partners, but it is still a long way off, Lotus IBM’s Lotus Instant Messaging is here today, and numerous third-party companies offer the tools you need to turn a public IM network into a manageable corporate IM system for your customers. I’ll look into some of those products and services in my next channel column. IM you then.

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