The line between instant messaging and collaboration software blurs further with the release this week of InterComm: IM buddies can assemble as groups, share files, and show (or hide) their availability to different groups.
Use of the basic InterComm IM and collaboration service on the peer-to-peer network operated by vendor Five Across is free of charge. InterComm Pro, now available in a 30-day free trial (US$29 to keep), adds new functions to the original IM, file sharing, and collaboration capabilities. Five Across Workgroup Servers are scheduled be available to businesses later this year, and fees for that broader collaboration capability will be announced then.
Selective presence capability is InterComm's standout feature. Presence capability--being able to show whether a contact is available--has long been one of the chief strengths of instant messaging, but IM isn't the only application to benefit from it.
"Presence is at the heart of collaboration," says Erica Rugullies, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "As these platforms become more widely adopted, presence will be part of it."
InterComm allows selective presence by workgroup. An InterComm user working through lunch might choose to accept instant messages only from a specified group, while showing an "at lunch" status message to others--and appear to other groups that the deadline-haunted user isn't even logged in.
Microsoft's LiveCommunication server has a similar presence feature that works by person, but not by workgroup; it offers only on/off presence instead of InterComm's several options.
"This is the first product I've seen that lets one person have multiple presences" under the same screen name, says Nate Root, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.
Built for Groups
The capability to control communications by group is InterComm's chief asset. Many IM and collaboration applications "started out flat and got hierarchical when needed. We've built the hierarchy in from the start," says Five Across CEO Glenn Reid.
A contact list similiar to that of any IM client is the backbone of InterComm. However, each contact can be placed in a number of workgroups, at the user's choice. Workgroups can be public or by invitation only, and can be protected by passwords.
Instead of pigeonholing contacts into the usual vague categories like "Work," "Family," and "Friends," contacts can exist in every appropriate group. For example, some contacts may belong in "Projects Due September 1," "Projects Due October 15,"and "Plans for the Boss' Birthday." Setting workgroups enables users to share a central repository to drag-and-drop files of common interest, or to send messages that reach group members on IM or e-mail.
"Our group model matches the way people work, orienting communication around projects and documents," Reid says. "It's like putting the file cabinet next to the water cooler."
Besides its selective presence capabilities, InterComm's free version offers another useful IM feature: a list of commonly used phrases you can send in your IM chats. In the Pro version, you can add your own phrases to a preset list.
Other features in Pro include an archiving function and improved file-sharing options such as version control. It also adds group polling, phone and e-mail alerts, and the capability to propose meetings to a workgroup.
InterComm requires Windows 2000, NT, or XP. A Macintosh version is also available.
Five Across expects corporate enterprises as well as small and midsize businesses to find the enhanced IM tools useful. But the IM and collaboration needs of small-to-medium businesses differ from those of enterprises, Rugullies says.
"In small-to-medium businesses, many (workers) will be in the same place anyway. Consumer IM products are often sufficient" for IM needs, she says. However, she notes, "Team collaboration is valuable for any team project. Discussion threads, version control, and the ability to retire it when it's done are important for any project. Small-to-medium businesses don't have an IT department to cover this for them."
Some smaller businesses are already turning to hosted services like Groove Networks Inc.'s Groove Virtual Office and Documentum's Eroom.net for conferencing tools. Hosted services remove the maintenance burden from the customer, allowing companies without an IT department to use these services, Rugullies says. She expects Five Across's free offering "will help them gain a foothold with small businesses."
Rugullies isn't surprised to see IM and collaboration merging: "It's not just useful, it's inevitable."