Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Next Killer App

An article in Smithsonian Magazine last year on the invention of the photocopier and the affect it had on offices around the world got me thinking about what truly new inventions or gadgets have had that kind of impact on the white collar workplace since I entered the workforce in 1982. One might think about the personal computer, but frankly there's little being done on PCs today (productive work, at least) that wasn't being done or couldn't be done on a mainframe or midrange server from a dumb terminal. Certainly e-mail in and of itself has created revolutionary changes in how people do their jobs in day-to-day business and if PCs in general have created more of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, the mobility revolution of laptops, cellphones, Blackberries, PDAs and wireless technology have in fact created massive changes in where we work and when we work (and unfortunately shrunk dramatically the time that we DON'T work).

But there's another technology out there that has quietly become one of the most used tools in office life, one that has the potential to become the next "killer app" yet one that seems to get little acknowledgement and is provided mostly for free. That, my friends, is instant messaging. In the global workplace that I'm a part of, IM systems have become an essential tool in getting work done. E-mails are great for long messages, for creating a virtual paper trail, for sending attachments - we can't live without it. Phone calls and voice mail are vital as well, but during a normal business day, I'm successful in actually completing a call only about 20-25% of the time - usually the person I want to talk to is on a conference call or on the phone to someone else or they're not answering the phone because they're trying to wrap up that memo they've been working on for 45 minutes and they know an interruption will cause them to lose their train of thought when they're almost, almost done. But instant messaging is somewhere in between - you get a message that pops up like a telephone ring, but it'll sit there patiently until you finish your memo and unlike a ringing telephone, it won't care if you're already having two or three or four other IM conversations. It's a multi-taskers dream! I rarely call someone anymore without "pinging" them first on IM to see if they're available. (I may have to follow up this post with one on the origin of the term "ping" and its implication that we're turning into little network droids instead of people, but I digress.) And it's not just the IT outsourcing company that I work for - I've seen the same in every customer of ours that I've dealt with as well as every vendor and partner that we deal with.

So the industry should be making a killing on this, right? Right? /* crickets chirping */

Kids, most of us are using this service for absolutely nothing. We're using AOL Instant Messenger or MSN Messenger or Yahoo or some other service and we're paying nada for it. This is a tool that was basically developed as far as I can tell as an attractant to get young people interested in whatever Internet service was offering it and has now been adopted (not without some reservations) by the office world. I suspect the providers are struggling with finding a way to differentiate between consumer users and corporate users in order to charge the one and not the other, but I suspect that's difficult to do. I believe they do offer to put servers in-house for a fee to keep data secure inside a company's firewall (Lotus Sametime is usually implemented this way and I know we pay for it, but it only helps with internal communications), but that only really works if you have little or no contact with companies outside yours and that happens more and more infrequently these days. What's it going to take for someone to really make money at this?

Maybe looking at a couple of the drawbacks would help. First of all, there are too damn many of them. Between messaging my co-workers and messaging my customers, I am usually logged in to AIM, MSN Mess and Lotus Sametime. I should probably be logged into Yahoo as well. Truth be told, I can look at those three systems and find most people I work with on at least a weekly basis show up in at least 2 of the 3. Sure there are clients like Trillian and Miranda that try to support some or all of the different systems, but it is in the best interest of the AOLs and Microsofts to make that difficult and they do - I've found none of those products satisfactory. Another problem that seems to generate little thought but scares the heck out of me is the fact that companies are using these tools more and more to get decision-making information in real time to the right people at the right time. Nothing wrong with that - one of the real benefits of the tools, as a matter of fact. But it means that the quick message from a sales guy to the person back at the home office of "did we quote $300K or $3M to ACME?" is answered across the Internet with only the security provided by the service provider on a system that was really set up to allow teenage girls to chat about how cute that new boy in their history class is. Or at least I think that's the case and that itself is maybe a little bit of a problem as well - I understand the secure and insecure aspects of the computer networks I use at work and of e-mail and of wireless. I'm not so sure I do understand those same aspects of a technology that I not only use every day - I depend on it.

So, there ya go, smart guys. Here's a technology that we're not only using for free - we're coming to absolutely depend on it. I think there's enormous potential for someone to develop a product that allows for secure controlled IMing across companies - gimme something with the security of an in-house-run Sametime, the functionality of an AIM or MSN Messenger and a universal interface that will talk to the other major IM systems and I'm betting that it'll sell. Big.