Agencies that permit IM services will face third-party concerns

Shawn P. McCarthy

Instant messaging has become a staple for network managers who frequently consult colleagues down the hall or across the country. IM windows are a great way to ask questions or tell someone how to install software or reconfigure a system.

But IM conversations bring up the issue of involving an outside party to make the connection. For example, if you use the America Online Instant Messenger service, your messages are routed through an AOL data center, which serves up ads on the window.

Another issue is that conversations usually are not archived. If your office's servers go down, could you prove it happened because of a change you were told to make via an instant message?

Government offices that permit instant messaging need to ask whether they're compromising security by involving a third party, and whether they violate regulations that require archiving e-mail messages. Yes, I know IMs are not e-mail. But maybe they should be treated as such.

We're now seeing the rise of new types of IM services designed for internal use behind an organization's firewall. No third party is involved, and conversations can be archived or even re-initiated, should new information need to be added to a previous conversation thread.

An IM product from 2Way Corp. of Seattle recently received approval for limited use on some military networks. Besides running in a secure environment, 2Way IM can also archive conversations automatically for retrieval by participant, subject, date and so on.

Small but sufficient

Another company in this field is Zaplet Inc. of Redwood Shores, Calif., which makes small applications for Web collaboration, such as shared spreadsheet, messaging and calendar apps. The Zaplet platform can be installed on an agency network or hosted by Zaplet in a secure environment.

Lotus Development Corp. is working on Lotus Translation Services for Sametime, a middleware service for real-time translation of Web chat. It can work with multiple commercial translation engines, plugging their dictionary software into Lotus application programming interfaces.

All of this development activity illustrates why IM and collaboration spaces are fundamentally different from e-mail.

At the same time, we're seeing a shift toward peer-to-peer file sharing over the Internet through services such as It's already expanding to other file types, such as digital rights-swapping for documents and program objects. Look at for an introduction to collaborative systems that can extend to instant file sharing in a peer-to-peer environment.

The number of instant messages sent by a typical office is expected to double in the next year. Peer-to-peer file sharing is also growing. Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., recently predicted that IM and collaborative services would evolve to complement e-mail and telephones as a global communications

That means government offices risk losing control of their information flow if they don't find a way to deal with IM.

Switching to software that allows IM but limits access and archives the messages is one way to cope.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].


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