IM is the fastest growing communications channel ever. It is growing faster than the use of telephone and mobile use, faster than e-mail usage. Although people tend to associate it with teen-agers use, instant messaging is increasingly well entrenched in the enterprise as an efficient collaboration tool and online users of all ages rely on it as a key communications technology.
In non-suspect times, in April 2005 I myself printed a new set of business cards before going to a set of conferences and as you can see from their shots, I had nothing else BUT my IM addresses on it.
Instant messaging is set to become the center of your communication and collaboration universes as higher-level messaging, conferencing and interaction features get increasingly integrated into the various IM platforms out there.
While the culture of those using instant messaging still varies greatly, ranging from novices who use Skype like it was a telephone (grrrrrr), to those who operate and interact with their extended distributed work teams across multiple IM platforms, while using selectively all of the different facilities offered (file sharing, asynchronous text chat, real-time voice or text, asynchronous voice messaging, etc.), we are about to see a sudden evolution of how we see, understand and use instant messaging that will greatly amplify our abilities for truly effective online communication and collaboration activities.
This is what I would define as Instant Messaging 2.0, an emerging new convergence of communication, collaboration and distribution technologies that will unleash changes and opportunities too vast for me to foresee in full.
But here is my attempt at doing just this. Better defining Instant Messaging 2.0 and the characterizing traits and technology components that will determine it.
Why secure instant messaging is poised to become my communication and collaboration platform of choice?
a) instant messengers are the most popular and fastest adopted communication and collaboration tool utilized by individuals online.
b) instant messengers can be utilized easily across fixed and mobile devices from standard PCs to mobile telephones or PDAs.
c) while the browser was a tool originally designed for accessing and visualizing information, instant messengers are the natural, easiest, most spontaneous communication tool available online (next to email).
d) if web 2.0 is truly based around greater interaction, real-time communication and collaboration with others, then instant messengers are perfectly positioned to be our ideal, most frictionless point of entrance to all that.
The key difference from what you have seen until now though, will be that, instant messengers will not remain isolated communication platforms on which to carry out one to one real-time communications, but will be rendezvous points, meeting spots from which to engage into different levels of direct interaction.
Instant messengers will therefore become not only launching platforms for many group collaboration activities, but the most efficient way to access previously separate tools and services, which may find renewed value when converged and made seamlessly accessible from your personal IM.
In this view, instant messaging platforms would be the most advanced and fertile mash-up platforms, as with their open API they would offer hooks and doors for all kinds of new communication and collaboration services to be re-mixed and made available to their target audiences in way that would "feel" more natural than downloading and installing a new software or learning a completely new web-based interface metaphor.
That is, instant messengers become key vehicles for both "content" (RSS, news feeds, weather, movies, video, podcasting, etc.) distribution and for "new product and services" distribution.
Could WebEx have a better marketing and distribution channel than the new AIM Pro instant messaging platform? I really don't think so.
Making communication and collaboration services viable through the new emerging instant messaging platforms (yes, this is IM 2.0 as it should be intended) will be a lesson to be learned rapidly by all those companies developing new services that could easily synergize, extend, or complement what people already do through their preferred instant messaging platform.
Instant messengers of the near future, may also bridge into a yet yet to boom sector of which I have been writing about before: personal media aggregators.
Once instant messengers become hub points both for collecting and accessing critical content as well as for opening up new communication events and interactions the gap to reach personal media aggregator status is only marked by the ability to further personalize, customize and brand such instant messengers for specific niche audiences.
Instant Messaging 2.0
As I have been reading another post from David Coleman entitled "Instant Messaging 2.0?", I personally think that the issues at stake have not been correctly framed.
IM 2.0 is truly posed to be a tidal wave that will sweep and significantly expand our abilities to communicate, exchange and collaborate at a distance without needing to get a degree on H.323 or needing to take a WebEx training course.
Web conferencing, video conferencing, co-browsing, application / desktop / screen sharing, live annotation and markup, live PowerPoint / presentation facilities, search, RSS, email, along with new forms of real-time group messaging (swarming) are all converging toward your favourite IM very, very soon.
Martin Taylor, former corporate VP of Windows Live and MSN, stated:
"We regard Windows Live Messenger as one of the most pivotal services within Windows Live. Windows Live Messenger is also integrated with many of the Windows Live services to serve as a convenient entry point into consumers' online world so they can do even more than IM right from one place. People will be able to launch into blogging, sharing data, search, watching videos, and a multitude of other services via Messenger, he indicated."
(Source: Computer Business Review Online - June 20th 2006)
Don't believe me?
Start looking around you now, and you will see that the signs of these happening are just about everywhere. In fact, I am not discovering anything new at all, but only popularizing and making it easier to "see" something that was posed to evolve in this direction since quite some time.
In quite non suspect times, I and others had anticipated that instant messaging platforms were perfectly posed to become perfect vehicles to bring the enterprise-only world of web conferencing and real-time collaboration to non-technical users and professionals of all kinds.
But make no mistake. The innovations that will characterize instant messaging 2.0, are made up of a long series of ideas, features, possible new combinations and facilities, which in many cases, have already seen the light, in some early implementation here and there. What will happen now though, is that MANY of these new features and opportunities will suddenly start to converge and to be integrated by many of the players in this space, creating an extraordinary rapid evolution of instant messaging and its potential thanks to the powerful synergies that this process will create.
Here, my very personal list of what I would list as being the characterizing traits of Instant Messaging 2.0, so that when you will see one IM 2.0 tool, you will be able to say: Yes, this is one.
Instant Messaging 2.0 characterizing traits are defined by the integration of one or more of these components / features:
Conferencing and Real-Time Collaboration facilities
This is a "natural extension" and something all major IMs have already started doing in one way or another. File sharing, screen sharing, co-browsing and video conferencing are going to rapidly become IMs core characterizing traits.
Telephony Facilities bridging IM, VoIP and traditional phone lines
Bridging out to POTS and mobile phones while using VoIP is another trait that is already spreading like wildfire across all major instant messaging tools. From Skype to Gizmo, to Yahoo Messenger, Live Messenger and AOL all instant messengers are working hard to provide the easiest and most cost-effective path to instant communications between IMs and traditional phones.
Google has already done it by smartly bringing together it instant messaging / text chat facility right next to its GMail main interface while most other major IMs offer only a direct link into their browser-based email service. Clearly, email and messaging are two activities that are not just simply related but which are very closely connected along the same continuum.
br>History - Offline Messaging
As I have been recently writing about, I do see instant messaging having the ability to take on and replace email in many respects, especially as soon as more advanced archival and access management tools will allow us to access past messages in organized and structured ways. Until that comes, IM will temporarily remain in the realm of the "casual", impromptu exchange usage universe, while with increased ease of access to all past exchanges IM messaging will be able to take on much more formal and business-oriented roles.
On top of this it is critical for any 2.0 instant messaging platform to fully operate in both online and offline modes allowing messages to be delivered ASAP to any recipient even when temporarily offline. These two factors by themselves, paired with extra security and privacy protection controls could truly make IM my next favourite messaging platform, bar none.
Calendar and Contacts
As a starting point for most any online collaboration activity, instant messaging needs to rely on easy access to "calendaring" and "scheduling" tools and positively to as much as possible of your contacts information in ways that don't make it easy for this information to be easily compromised.
Presence Awareness indicators and controls
Seeing who is online and being able to understand at a glance what that person is doing, what time is at this location, where this person is located around the world, whether she is engaged in other chats / conversations (via text / audio / video) at this moment, what connectivity, computer and conferencing setup she has, and more, are only some of the critical information items a person may need to know before opening up a "live" IM exchange with someone else.
The visualization aspect of how "presence awareness" is communicated is also of strategic importance, and while most of you may think that we have already discovered everything with the introduction of presence-aware contact icons which show visually to others whether you are online or off, there is yet a lot to come in this direction as the increase in contacts to manage and the decrease in attention that can be devoted to this activity will drive further evolution of this important interface component.
At minimum, "presence awareness" will become more self-intelligent, capable of recognizing other ongoing parallel user activities and reporting its "public" status accordingly. The user will optionally be able to set and override such automated "presence rules" and determine herself the triggers and thresholds to be used to determine the presence status to report to everyone else.
At best, you are finally going to be able to appear "busy" for your sister while you are offline for your "outside-of-work-friends" and you are fully "online and available" for your working team only. Isn't about time? Multiple, non-conflicting presence statuses should be a must if we want to seriously manage in real-time our contacts in a virtual world.
Security and Encryption
Security and encryption, which need not to be offered as defaults in all IM platforms, are the two factors that will influence the most the degree of adoption by large organizations whishing to reap all of the IM benefits without taking any of the risks. Many such organizations, will want not only to block out IM interoperability and exchange with outside IM users on traditional IM networks but may also want to take tight control of which people may connect with which others.
Security is too much of an important factor for enterprise business while it is not a strong selection differentiator for IM personal or SOHO use. It appears therefore logical that strong security and encryption will be increasingly offered as premium services or as competitive key differentiators for those instant messaging companies and VARs which are strongly focused on the enterprise market.
A positive marketing loop also benefits IM platforms efforts in offering better security. Strong security integrated inside IM platforms makes enterprise use soar while making instant messaging more credible and respected as a valued communication channel. More security = more enterprise IM adoption and use = IM gains credibility and status = IM further increases its popularity and "status" as a serious communication/collaboration tool. Loop.
Stronger security protection would also mean for many the ability to stop having to share your complete contact list with instant messaging vendors which, no matter which privacy rules adopt, have them physically on their servers.
Advanced and Highly Customizable Privacy Protection Features
IM users should be able to select those individuals or groups of contacts to which they want to provide open access while being able to enforce more strict engagement policies for all other contacts. Like Ken Yarmosh writes on the Corante Web Hub "... what I do need it to help me with is to better manage my interactions with those on my buddylist. If presence is the new dial tone, then I need better ways to manage my presence. I want to be able to make my availability known to certain subsets of my contacts. Perhaps, for example, I’d like to be available via IM to a group of people I am working with but not all of my business contacts. The only option I have right now is make my IM “invisible” to everyone. That’s obviously not useful if I do want to take advantage of IM for a subset of all my contacts."
More granular controls are required so that I, as a user can control who and which groups of people can contact me, how they can, and when.
Mobile Multi-Channel Group Messaging
Send to SMS. Two way communication with mobile phones and PDAs is emerging as a trend that will continue to grow and which will allow the first seamless bridge between Internet-based and mobile users. Not only. The multi-channel aspect makes it possible that when you will send a message you will be able to decide to route it via IM only, or to send it out also on email and SMS channels. The "group" ability is also particularly important as it further enables smart-mobbing scenarios to take place with much greater ease and it includes the ability to easily send messages to predefined groups of people, ranging from very small to very large.
This is a major, critical trend which hasn't yet received the attention it deserves. Few tools already exist but in the coming months, during 2006, you will be able to see a growing number of announcements in this area.
Audio and Video Recording
The whole field of work collaboration is going to take off on the wings of new technologies that will allow much greater and more granular recording of all interaction "artifacts" generated during our communication and interactive exchanges (meetings, presentations, conferences, etc.). For now the ability to activate a one-lick recording facility that utilizes a standard, and possibly "open" file format, will be nearest goal that key competitors in this field will leverage to gain further competitive advantage.
Access to Files and Permanent Workspaces
When collaborating online with other people the two things that count the most are your contact list and the files and documents associated with that "interaction". The more instant messaging will become a starting point for many collaborative activities the more it will be important to, at minimum, be able to direct and immediate access to files, documents and permanent storage workspaces from within your favourite IM, and at best, to associate specific sets of documents or workspaces to individual contacts.
Interactive Agents - Bots
Instant messaging bots are already everywhere and growing in number by the day. Instant messenger-based bots are new "contacts" that you can add to your list of buddies and to which you can ask specific questions and information. Interactive bots can provide news, stock, sports and possibly any other type of information, as well as provide specific coverage for very specific interest areas.
Visual, Immersive Environments
As Yahoo Messenger has been showcasing for a few years now people like to "set" the environment in which they have a conversation, exchange, collaborate. And while this trend has been positively driven by teenage use, it finds parallel needs in its business and professional counterparts, where business people meeting online for a marketing discussion may want to have a different setup and feature-set than the three lawyers sitting down at a distance to review and edit a contract. While the difference may appear to be only aesthetic vs. functional the "look and feel" aspect will play an increasingly important role also in professional settings making it possible to significantly improve interactions and participants attitude during their exchanges.
At the opposite extreme highly immersive visual environments either based on high quality videoconferencing setups or on 3D immersive simulated spaces are converging and adopting instant messaging platform to guarantee easier communication between people before entering such spaces.
Programmable Avatars, Animated Talking Characters, Presence Icons
Programmable avatars and their close relatives the animated talking characters and the customizable person presence icons offer a universe of opportunities as their use will increase and differentiate rapidly. The importance of programmable avatars is that they offer a usable replaceable persona for yourself, which can take on specific roles, behaviours and features depending on the setting and the source of the interaction.
Programmable avatars can provide personalized auto-responses while taking away a lot of the burden of replying to some types of incoming contact requests without requiring you to have to temporarily abandon your main activity.
Though most instant messaging platforms are plagued today by unprofessional and childish-looking sets of visual icons that can be utilized to express human emotions, this is soon set to change. While in fact teen-agers remain the largest and fastest group of IM adopters, they need not to be treated as creatures that have no appreciation for simplified, non-decorative and highly legible designs only because we have brainwashed them with these toy-like designs for a few years now. Teenagers are sensitive visual communicators as older, professional people, if not more, and while we should not forbid kids from adopting childish-looking icons for their IM, we should not design and extend this to all other users unnecessarily.
As search activities become increasingly important in our universe permeated by huge quantities of information that can now be easily accessed, search will also positively become a critical component of most any work or personal activity to take place in the future. Why IM integrated search is nothing new at all, This is why major IM platforms are all striving to integrate search abilities right within the IM platform, though with non-impressive results until now. Smaller companies have taken the challenge further by not only allowing easy and effective IM-integrated search possible but by also empowering the user in creating custom search filters which limit the search on sets of predesignated sites.
"The use of IM to obtain information quickly and effectively is a logical convergence of both search and mobile communications. It allows us to take search with us wherever we are, and whatever we're doing. As a searcher I don't want to be tied to a book, a desk or a computer, and search over IM is a very attractive proposition. Consequently, while it's a relatively quiet field at the moment, I think it's going to get much busier in the coming year."
The ability to take on multiple identities or social roles when interacting with other people and online groups will become increasingly important as well as the ability to be able to activate multiple identities at the same time.
Language Translation - Live or Automated
Real-time message interpretation and automated, machine assisted language translations are going toffer also tremendous opportunities for new services and growth. Skype has already "eyed" this opportunity with several others soon to follow.
RSS integration is already a "natural" for several instant messaging platforms which either natively or via third-party plug-ins let you subscribe, receive and be alerted of RSS-based news and information.
Receiving alerts via IM is already available in different styles and colors and it is a natural match for this real-time communication channel.
Access to an unlimited number of Information Services
A direct consequence of the above two points is something all major instant messengers are already doing: providing direct access to a multitude of news and information services right from within the instant messaging interface.
Content Distribution Platform
But if that is true that means also that beyond weather forecasts, stock news, sports, movies, and many other already popular news and information services, the instant messaging platform is perfectly poised to be both a perfect distribution hub and viral marketing tool from where to easily share and redistribute all kinds of content.
P2P - File Sharing and more
Skype has taken this approach from the beginning while others tend to use hybrid approaches. As soon as instant messaging platform take seriously the opportunity to become themselves vehicles for content distribution well beyond podcasts, video and Internet television. Free of the scare of illegal file sharing and copyright issues, instant messaging platforms may well become ideal distribution platforms both for major media as well as for small vertical niche communities. IM and P2P were always meant to go hand in hand.
A Window into Video Publishing and a Window on Internet TV
Though this is based on pure speculation, I don't think it is too far fetched to soon see plugins and downloadable extensions allowing your preferred IM to let you listen to favourite podcasts and watch similarly your selected video blogs or other Internet television channels.
Similarly instant messaging with integrated recording facilities is perfectly placed to be tomorrow's online reporter perfect tool for capturing video and audio interviews without needing to fire up another set of tools.
Real-Time Experience Sharing Music Sharing
Sharing direct personal experiences with others in real-time will keep growing as a sector fuelling the use of instant messaging outside of business scenarios. Photo and image sharing as real-time music sharing seems the areas of greater growth. A few tools and plugins have started to appear that have been hinting at a growing interest and user demand for this type of facilities.
Plug-ins - Extendibility
Plug-ins and extensibility are both vital, as much as open APIs to the growth and survival of this communication platforms. I have no doubts that we will see lots of growth in this area as well as it provides the best means to avoid overloading IM platforms with too many features and letting the user directly personalize its online communication experience according to her preferred needs and requirements.
Client-Based as well as Web-Based
While for now most IM tools will be available as downloadable software clients like Skype, Live Messenger or YM, in the very near future they will also increasingly offer a fully-fledged web-based version of their technology, allowing anyone to access their favourite IM from just about any computer or PDA they may have access too. Not only. Web-based versions of these instant messaging platforms will finally provide true version parity among the different IM versions, which differ one from the other when used on one operating system or another (e.g.: Skype for PC and Skype for Mac are not the same and video is not -yet- available on the Mac version).
And nonetheless most major instant messaging platforms have already been offering this feature for quite some time and new 2.0 tools like Meebo confirm this trend, the web-based versions of these IM platforms have generally been much more limited in features and functionalities than their downloadable counterparts. In the near future, instant messaging 2.0 tools will take advantage of Ajax technology to provide a much richer and portable user experience accessible from any operating system.
This is the bread of any 2.0 technology. Being open for re-use, hook-in and extension by other third-party providers/ developers by providing open APIs. Instant messaging makes no exception.
Integration with Larger Systems
The ability for instant messaging platforms to integrate themselves "contextually" within larger application and communication management systems like Convoq has recently done with Salesforce.com are sure winners, as they once replicate the model of providing the least adoption resistance to new users, by becoming parts of their existing work universes.
Distracting and interruptive advertisements like the ones displayed at the bottom of the new Microsoft Live Messenger or the newly launched Yahoo Messenger 8 are certainly not going to be around for much longer. While such ads may help provide some sustainability for supporting the basic free IM platforms, distraction and interruption don't go well along a tool that is supposed to allow and facilitate a highly focused and distraction-free communication/collaboration experience. Instant Messengers also frequently suffer from issues of usability and interface design as they need to manage a delicate
juggle between providing easy access to several different functions while having only a very limited screen space.
Free to use
Instant messaging will remain free for all basic casual, personal use, costing up to ten of thousand of dollars instead when deployed within secure business environments and customized to specific real-time collaborative applications.
What else do you see?
Update June 23rd - 14:30 GMT+2
Stowe Boyd, asserts to be the one having first coined, utilized and explained the term instant messaging 2.0 and is howling like a stuck pig because in his opinion I have not credited his preceeding work. (Here is the credit link that he think was missing - happy to add it: Yahoo Releases New Messenger: Instant Messaging 2.0 by Stowe Boyd.)
Feel free to read his post and to evaluate yourself whether his complaints are right.
N.B.: I have also submitted an open comment to his post to share my view on his post.