Bantu IM sails with the Navy

Sometimes even e-mail isn't fast enough. On the heels of the Army Knowledge Online portal, Navy Knowledge Online has adopted an instant messaging product from Bantu Inc. of Washington.

The Navy currently has 60,000 IM users and further expansion plans. AKO has 1.3 million users.
Bantu gave the GCN Lab a guest account on the Navy Knowledge Portal to test the product. We found the technology similar to instant messenger programs from America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp. At log-in, a user can see whether others in a contact group are online, away from the desk or offline. Anyone who is online can instantly communicate with the others. But unlike the consumer IM systems, Bantu for the Navy is a closed system.

Only Navy or Marine Corps personnel'or a nosy reviewer who passed a background check'can access IM. Administrators must authorize access.

One plus for fast deployment is that there is no client software to install. I did place an automatic applet in the system tray to launch the Navy portal, but it worked just as well via a Web browser.

The Bantu system was light on graphics, so only a few kilobytes moved back and forth. That is an advantage for shipboard communications with limited bandwidth.

Another plus: Bantu IM has 128-bit encryption. Even items sent outside the system, such as e-mail transcripts of online chats, are first encrypted.

The best feature, however, was that data can be embedded in applications within the portal. For example, a user's online status is embedded in the Navy's directory. Say a sailor at sea needs to repair a torpedo propeller. If he gets stuck and needs help, he can log in and search for anyone in the Navy's propeller interest group.

Can U help me?

He might see there are 50 people in the group. Reading their profiles, he can narrow his search to 10. If any of them are online, he can click and send an instant message. He might get back an instant answer from a total stranger based in Okinawa, Japan.

The Navy also maintains message boards on various topics using the Bantu system. While I was online, Navy personnel were discussing what temperature ranges were safe for storing ammunition for shipboard antimissile defense.

Once a week, administrators add the helpful chat transcripts to their knowledge base, so anyone with a problem can find the answer even after the discussions are over.

Users also can temporarily remove themselves when they're too busy to be bothered by IM. It's easy to change status to invisible with one click. Then incoming messages will be queued until the users return online.

IM, as the Navy has deployed and customized it, is a powerful weapon in the IT arsenal. It keeps people in touch in an instant, secure environment. I found Bantu's program efficient and easy to use. It easily earned an A as the next step up from e-mail.

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