(IM as in Instant Messaging)

Microsoft has recently announced the latest developments in its unified communications strategy with lots of focus on improving the ability to avoid telephone tag and bring all the different communication formats together in one place (email, phone, IM etc.). Whilst it is popular to talk about how technology can assist with people-to-people communication, particularly instant messaging and presence information, there are also some less well-known but equally interesting developments in using tools like IM to improve communication between people and non-organic systems.

If you use Microsoft’s consumer instant messaging service, Windows Live Messenger (formerly known as MSN Messenger), you can add Microsoft’s Encarta as a contact (simply add encarta@conversagent.com) and ask Encarta questions. The screenshot below shows me asking what is the population of London:

It was a fairly simple question with a fairly straightforward answer (not sure how current, but let’s not nit pick just yet). But what’s really interesting is that Encarta also then invites me to start the online Encarta service where I can dive into more details if I want to. Imagine if this method was applied to business systems. For example, I might have an upset customer on the end of the phone demanding to know how to extract little Tommy’s fingers from their new HD-DVD without breaking the new toy (hey, priorities! :-)) I can quickly send an instant message to the product database and receive an answer plus an invitation to open the online manual for the device in question, complete with diagrams. The system could even go a stage further. If plugged into a people profile database, it could discover who knows all about removing alien objects from DVD players, check their online presence status and automatically invite an engineer into the conversation to help resolve the issue without requiring finger amputation… To pinch the line from a UK advert on waste recycling, ‘the possibilities are endless’. I could ask the system about a customer’s account profile and receive their current order and credit status in the reply with the option to view their full account details online, the name of their account manager and the option to invite the account manager into the conversation (email, phone, or IM depending on their availability, thanks to unified communications).

It appears the Encarta service has recently been expanded further. I came back to my computer screen the other day to see a message had popped up from, none other than, Encarta.

Now, I can’t say I care too much about who Georgio Armani has designed uniforms for, but again imagine the possibilities. Whilst I was still at Microsoft, the internal IT department had already started using IM to push out systems alerts, such as virus warnings and updates about the status of messaging servers. As business intelligence tools become more widely adopted, the results of data mining and analysis could be used to proactively push business information out through IM. Hook analysis tools to your email, calendar and ‘to do’ list, and your IM client could become your virtual PA throughout the day. (Even more so as we start to see IM clients on mobile devices.)

You could argue many of these features are already possible, sitting in the domain of portals. (Indeed, the ever-maturing SharePoint would like to claim ownership of the unified applications space) But an IM client offers a number of advantages over the portal, particularly when you want quick answers. #1: It is clean and simple. I ask a message and don’t get distracted by any other clutter. The response includes additional options if I need more detail. I don’t have to go find and navigate a menu structure to get those options – it does the searching for me. #2: It is fast. The instant messaging client is a small application that is always running in the background, it is usually far quicker and easier to chat on IM than send/receive email. #3: It is conversational. IM feels more human, even when you are talking to a system. And we humans are suckers for adopting systems that we can relate to far better than sterile unsociable applications.


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