IM faces identity crisis, Microsoft executive says

Like much of the group that made it popular, IM (instant messaging) is a high-potential teenager going through an identity crisis, according to Microsoft Corp. Product Unit Manager David Gurle.

Speaking at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring 2003 Conference and Expo in Boston on Tuesday, Gurle told attendees that IM is often misunderstood, and that for its true potential to be realized, service providers will have to undergo a tremendous shift in their business models.

"IM is not about connecting terminals to terminals -- what we've really created is a people-to-people Web," Gurle said.

IM's feature of presence, being able to see when a user is online and available to communicate, is the key to the technology, Gurle said, and that element needs to be exploited.

"IM is a virtual network on top of the Internet and we haven't figured out how to leverage that yet," he said.

Gurle's views, coming as myriad players are rushing into the IM market, and Microsoft itself is getting ready to roll out a new enterprise IM offering, dubbed "Greenwich," came as a bit of a surprise. Gurle argued for a perspective shift that would require most attendees of the conference -- businesses, service providers and Microsoft itself -- to do some fancy footwork to get ahead.

Gurle called for a focus on presence that would allow businesses to easily communicate with business partners and customers, without worrying about security, interoperability and authentication, and a shift in control over "namespace" from the service providers to the businesses.

"IM has an identity crisis," Gurle said, referring to current status of namespace, which often connects people via aliases rather than their true names or identities within a corporation.

Gurle foresees a scenario where individuals and companies control their namespace and have authentication of these identities. But for this to happen, separate IM and presence networks must work together. A clearing house approach is the best way for ensuring that networks operate together, trading access much like phone networks do now, Gurle said.

However, Microsoft's Greenwich, which is scheduled for release in either the second or third quarter of this year, offers a federated approach, where business partners and customers are allowed access to a company's IM network.

"But we know this won't scale," Gurle conceded, saying that it would be an "ID nightmare" to give access to numerous partners and customers.

Gurle's admission that his company's own product will not be scalable came as a sort of plea for the industry to start working toward a better model.

"If we don't get a clearinghouse infrastructure, we are never going to get past presence and IM," he said.

Gurle's comments came as many users and industry providers alike have begun dreaming of all the potential uses of IM, for video conferencing, and tight integration between applications and people, for example.

But Gurle said he believes that the technology has even more potential, and could turn the communications market on its head, if done right.

According to the executive, IT buyers are getting smarter and their demands will shape the industry. It is up to service providers to reconfigure their business models to keep up with this changing market, he said.

"Current service providers are struggling with their business model, offering all sorts of networks, but what is their soul," Gurle queried.

While his answer seemed to be offering a network of people, it was unclear in what direction Microsoft will immediately move. Greenwich will roll out with multiparty chat capabilities, peer-to-peer voice and video conferencing, data collaboration, authentication, encryption, multidomain support and e-mail generation among other features. And while these capabilities are designed to solve some of the issues Microsoft sees in the market, the Redmond, Washington, software giant is clearly on the IM move.

How its future IM offerings fare against players like Yahoo Inc. and America Online Inc., which are also gunning for the corporate market, remains to be seen. One thing seems certain, however, and that is that Microsoft plans to have presence.

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