AOL gets the message

America Online Inc. next month will introduce a new version of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) that addresses security and other management concerns that have kept large organizations from adopting the popular software.

AIM notifies users when anyone from a personal buddy list — a target set of people — logs on to AOL and is available to exchange instant messages. Users do not have to open their e-mail to exchange messages; instead, they can send and receive messages in a box that pops up on the screen.

With about 150 million screen names registered, many people use AIM to communicate quickly and casually with family and friends. Although the software would be ideal for helping employees collaborate on projects, many organizations have blocked its use because of security concerns, according to AOL officials.

But AOL officials believe the new release of Enterprise AIM should go a long way in easing those concerns. Enterprise AIM will initially include three products: a client, a server, and auditing and archiving services that will, for the first time, bring people who use AIM under the control of an organization's security administrator. The administrator will be able to set policies for who can exchange messages and what the messages can be about.

Users will also be able to send encrypted messages to one another through a public-key infrastructure. It should be a big help to organizations such as the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare System Command, where the technology is already used to provide real-time communication between project workgroup members and for such everyday tasks as helping Spawar employees keep in touch with family members.

Knowing when people are available online and being able to send messages immediately without having to compose and send e-mails and wait for replies — or without having to chase people down over the phone — is very helpful, said Ron Broersma, network security manager at Spawar's San Diego headquarters.

"But there's been a huge concern within the entire Defense Department over the type of information that could be communicated in such an open and free way," he said. "Since the level of trust of such public services as AOL's isn't known, the feeling was that we would eventually have to outlaw them."

The fear that sensitive information could get into the public domain through instant messaging should be largely allayed by Enterprise AIM's features, he said, which will provide end-to-end encryption for the first time and allow the use of public-key certificates issued by DOD.

John Menkart, AOL's director of government sales, thinks there's more of a demand for instant messaging in government than is now apparent, which will show up once Enterprise AIM proves itself.

AIM "is already being used widely in an insecure mode, so at the grass-roots level we think there is a tremendous pent-up demand for this," Menkart said. "At the executive level, we may need to push the case a little more to show that it has been tested and is secure. Organizations want to ban instant messaging because they don't think it's secure, but it really does help people to do their job better."

However, it may still take time to gauge the overall demand for instant messaging, according to Michael Osterman, founder and president of Osterman Research, a market research and consulting firm.

According to his firm's surveys of users of all types of messaging, about 15 percent said they would probably be frequent users of instant messaging if a secure form was available. The true demand for Enterprise AIM will come down to cost and ease of use.

"Organizations have no inherent objection to secure instant messaging and might actually favor it," Osterman said. "What they don't want is something that will cost them substantially more to implement and that will be tougher to use."

AOL's Enterprise AIM client product is in beta testing now, with the production version to be introduced by the end of September, Menkart said. The server product should come out soon after. The archiving and audit service might be available sometime in November, he said.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

***

Enterprise AOL Instant Messenger Management features include:

* Support for private domains for organizations that don't want to register for America Online Inc.'s user names.

* Group screen names for organizations that need to communicate with customers or business partners on a regular basis.

* Support for an instant messaging service that operates behind an organization's firewall.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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