With this week's launch of Universal Application Messaging (UAM), Sprint took its first step into enterprise instant messaging (IM), a space that's also been luring big rivals such as AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and IBM's Lotus. Sprint's solution stands out from others in the pack by allowing for integration with outside applications. Organizations can also log and track IM messages, encrypt messages, and authenticate employees who are accessing the system over wired and wireless networks.
Sprint is now trialing its IM solution with a large enterprise in the finance industry, said Ken Kurz, senior practice principal, Sprint Mobile Computing Services. Kurz declined, though, to name the earlybird customer. "A major airline is looking at the solution, too," he maintained.
Choice of Linux or Sun servers
Slated for availability in January, Sprint's J2E-based UAM is a bundle of products and services which revolves around an enterprise IM server. The IM server resides behind the server on the enterprise network, according to Kurz. The server will run on a choice of Linux or Sun Solaris OS.
Supported IM clients will run the gamut from PCs to cell phones, RIM pagers, Palms, and Handspring devices, for instance. Sprint also plans to support other wireless WANs aside from the company's own PCS, including CDMA. UMA will use Sun's Java-based over the air (OTA) protocol to deliver messages to subscribers.
Sprint is the latest in a string of players to be rolling into enterprise IM this fall. Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition debuted in October. Earlier in November, AOL unveiled AIM Enterprise Gateway. Microsoft introduced MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises just about a week later.
Analysts foresee a hot market for enterprise IM over the next few years. In one recent study, the Radicati Group projected that worldwide IM accounts for business purposes will soar from 35 million in 2002 to 118 million by 2006.
Faster than e-mail, and without the spam
"The biggest benefit is speed. People can transfer information very quickly when a company has IM," said Genelle Hung, a market analyst at Radicati.
According to David Strassel, an analyst for the Intermarket Group, disenchantment with spam is another factor that is driving business and consumer users away from e-mail, into the arms of IM.
"IM has other advantages, too. You can easily tell whether someone is available, for example," noted Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research Inc.
Sprint plans to differentiate its enterprise IM offering through "security, manageability, and the messaging interface," Kurz contended.
SSL, RADIUS, tracking & logging
Sprint will provide security features that include SSL encryption and RADIUS authentication. The server software will also include capabilities for tracking and logging instant messages, and for granting permissions for functions such as file transfers, said Kurz.
"One of the biggest problems for IM is security. Companies want to be able to tell who is doing the messaging, and where any attached files are being sent. Instant messaging can also take away from productivity time. That's why a lot of organizations are clamping down," according to Hung.
"So far, most IM usage has involved consumer-grade products, and these can open up very significant security holes. A lot of companies have been saying, 'We can't afford to implement a true enterprise-grade product,'" said Michael Osterman.
In fact, about 23 percent of IT departments have been blocking IM traffic in their organizations, according to a study by Osterman Research Inc.
'Official and unofficial' IM use
IM has been used, "either officially or unofficially," in 84 percent of the organizations surveyed by Osterman. This percentage was expected to rise to 93 percent over the next 12 months. The study was released in September of this year.
Almost 8 percent of the organizations said their IT departments "actively oppose" IM. About 12 percent oppose IM, "but are not doing anything" about it. Conversely, roughly 34 percent of the IT departments support IM, 34 percent are neutral, and 12 percent "haven't really thought about it," according to the study.
Among IM products in use, "even unofficially," AOL Instant Messenger led the field (about 60 percent), followed by Microsoft MSN Messenger (50 percent); Yahoo Messenger (45 percent); Lotus Sametime (31 percent); ICQ (25 percent); and Microsoft Windows Messenger (25 percent).
'Subscribing to applications'
"Sprint's U AM is a true enterprise-grade IM system. We define 'enterprise grade' systems as those that include security, auditing, and directory integration," according to Michael Osterman.
In the new crop of enterprise IM products announced this fall, some of Sprint's big rivals are also offering - or planning to offer - features like message monitoring, encryption, and/or directory integration.
"UAM, though, is a very interesting product. It is taking IM in one of the directions we foresee for the future. Sprint is the only large vendor to be providing integration not just with the directory, but with other applications," Osterman said.
"With UAM, you'll be able to subscribe to IM, not just from people but from applications. You'll be able to add applications to the buddy list," Kurz concurred.
Through integration between UAM and LDAP, for example, mobile and desktop users will be able to asks for employees' phone numbers, and get answers back right away, said Kurz.
Alternatively, a company might decide to integrate UAM with an ERP application, to let salespeople check inventory levels from on the road, he illustrated. Custom integration services will be available through Sprint.
Some observers, though, question whether integration with the directory or other applications is actually necessary. "If you have a good search engine, you can probably find an employee's phone number just as quickly," Hung suggested.
No industry interoperability yet
Meanwhile, cross-vendor interoperability could remain an issue in IM for some time to come. Lately, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has been working on SIMPLE, a set of extensions to the SIP industry protocol.
"We're not supporting SIP initially. Now that SIMPLE has been ratified, however, SIP is in our roadmap," according to Sprint's Kurz
Other players are still in waiting mode, too. For example, in the recently released Sametime 3.0, Lotus originally intended to add a gateway to SIP, for messaging between communities supporting the emerging industry protocol. Late in the development cycle, though, Lotus yanked this feature, promising to include it in a future release instead.
"Industry compliance with SIP/SIMPLE looks to be at least 12 to 18 months away now. Standardization always takes a while to go across the board," predicted Radicati's Hung.
It's too early to tell yet how various enterprise IM products will fare. Analysts, though, point to intense competition. "A lot depends on a vendors' sales channels, and whether or not the vendor can get big customers behind its products. What (vendors) really want is for a big organization to start saying, 'This really rocks,'" noted Hung.