Remembering AIM

AOL is eliminating its AIM service after a 20 year run. It is sort of an ignominious end to the once-popular IM platform. Many of us were teens (or parents thereof) when AIM was in its heyday, and I was a big user back in the early 2000s when I worked at CMP to communicate with our far-flung staff (and even the folks sitting a few feet away from me too). That brings up how IM can bring together work teams to collaborate, and how IM has been an essential tool with many of my jobs since then. Just this morning I was using IM to “talk” to my editor in Pittsburgh and another researcher in Europe for my Inside Security newsletter. Like many of you, I take these conversations for granted and like many tech companies, has standardized on Slack, and indeed I participate in numerous other Slack groups now.

More than ten years ago, I wrote this story for the NY Times, The I.M. Generation Is Changing the Way Business Talks. In it, I describe the opportunities and challenges that IM faced in the modern business. To me, the timing of this article points out that there still were plenty of businesses that hadn’t even considered any IM tools. IBM was quoted in the piece as using its own IM tool for sending millions of messages daily, and eliminating voice mail tag. In my article, I called IM “the new black,” meaning it was trendy back then.

Today my phone rarely rings — to the point that I haven’t had a “desk” office phone in so long that I can’t even remember. Between IM and emails, there really isn’t any need to “talk” to anyone anymore.

One of the reasons why businesses loved IM is that its own workers literally grew up on the service. “AIM was a domain parents didn’t understand, giving it a feeling of clandestine cool.” This is from Tech Crunch, which has this tribute. In that link is a clip with a reminder of its pernicious sound effects. Boy does that bring back memories. One of my favorites was when my daughter was a pre-teen, deeply steeped into using AIM to communicate with 100 of her closest friends. I had trouble getting her to sign off when it was bed time, and so told her that she was going to get kicked off the system promptly at 10 pm. I had set up a firewall rule on our home router to block access to IP port 5190 at that time. She didn’t think I could do that, and after a few warnings I remember her realizing that I meant business when the hour struck. Being a parent back in that era was a lot easier than today, to be sure.

Speaking of pre-teens, I found this awkward story about making dating decisions using AIM. Again, a typical use case from back in that era.

But while AIM set the standard for IM, it didn’t keep up with the times. Ironically, as more users became mobile, they migrated to other IM tools because AOL’s mobile clients were late to the party and under-powered. They were slow to provide APIs, something Slack does in spades and one of the reasons you can find Slack “bots” for all sorts of add-on applications. And as users migrated to other IM services, AOL itself stopped using the service for its own internal communications, at one point using Slack itself. That is bad news when you can’t even find the tool capable for your own people.

AIM was also victim to SMS services and smartphones. As more people used both, the use cases blurred further between personal and corporate messaging. My daughter, who is now in her late 20s, told me that she hasn’t used AIM in years. Now she uses WhatsApp for both business and personal reasons, and that can be an issue when she is trying to get her work done and can’t easily find a conversation.

Well before Facebook-stalking was a thing, AIM profile stalking became slang for many users. This Ars writer recalls he had his “first taste of how the Internet could enable asynchronous self-expression and personal broadcasting amid a tight-knit social group.” That was before blogs, before MySpace even. So while I haven’t used AIM in a long time, I am sad that it is actually getting turned off soon.

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

Fans of Paul Newman will recognize his character’s famous line in Cool Hand Luke. Never in the history of electronic communications do we have so many choices and yet experience so many communication failures. This was made clear to me recently when I tried to get in touch with a “friend” of mine. I put the word in quotes because I mean it in Facebook terms: someone that I may or may not have met f2f, but want to stay in touch. Let’s call this friend Bob for simplicity.

My go-to communication method is email, so I first tried to send Bob a quick email to answer a question. Sadly, I have 9,000 contacts in my Gmail but Bob is one of the many of them who have moved on to another email address. The mail came back undeliverable. That wasn’t a good sign. But even if it got through, it doesn’t mean anything these days: there are lots of folks that ignore their emails, or have bad spam filters, so sometimes they don’t see them even if the address is correct.

Then I thought, perhaps I have Bob under my contacts at LinkedIn, which is my second place that I can usually track someone down. Strike two: LinkedIn knows about Bob with the outdated email that I had. Apparently, Bob hasn’t been too diligent about his updates. Yes I could try Plaxo but didn’t bother.

Bob’s phone is listed as his work number in my database, and of course he no longer works at this company anyway. Sometimes you can get the main number of the company or press 0 for a receptionist and they can be quite helpful. But this firm got rid of their receptionists long ago (chalk it up to progress) and just has a dial-by-name directory so that doesn’t help things. Once I got someone else’s replacement and they were quite helpful, pointing me to the new (or at least next) employer, but still, that doesn’t happen all too often these days.

Besides, even with a phone number or several numbers, that doesn’t mean anything. I have plenty of family members who are very hard to track down, and I have multiple numbers for them. People don’t like to answer their phones anymore. (Or maybe just not answer my calls. Hmm.)

Facebook? Bob and I aren’t connected there. And Bob has a common name, so trying to track him down and befriend him is an exercise in frustration. Do I remember any mutual friends of Bob that can connect me? I can’t remember how we first met: this isn’t unusual, as my memory isn’t what it used to be these days.

Even if we were Facebook “friends” that still doesn’t mean I am out of the woods. Yes, I could try Facebook messaging or IM, but if Bob isn’t online or doesn’t check his account all that frequently, that may or may not pan out.

Maybe Bob is on AOL or Skype or MSN IM? Nope, or at least I don’t think so. I have a lot of people on various IM lists, some that I have identified with their real names and others that have puzzling screen names with no clue as to who they are. Most of my IMs are to people that I work with (or did work with) on a daily basis: my AOL IM list for example, is frozen in time back to 2004 when I last worked at CMP (now UBM) and that was our main corporate communications channel. One of these days I am going to weed these out. In the meantime, there isn’t any real way to find someone on IM, unless you know of his or her ID to begin with. The same goes for Twitter.

There are some people that have turned Twitter into their go-to communications platform, but I am not even close there. Maybe that will motivate me to start.

I guess I could Google Bob, that might work, but for common names it is unlikely.

So yes, electronic communications has made us incredibly productive. But sometimes I do miss the olden times; back when real people answered their phones and tracked folks down when they didn’t.

So, as Newman says.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions, please post to my story on ReadWriteWeb here.


Selling presence-aware apps in the channel (eWeek)

The next step in voice and data convergence is to develop real-time applications. Selling a voice-over-IP system is often just the beginning of a long-lasting and profitable solution for many VARs and systems integrators. One of the next steps in that process entails understanding how to develop real-time applications that can take advantage of voice and data convergence.

These often go by the term “presence-aware,” meaning that the application understands what users are actually doing, including when they are busy on a phone call or away from their desks.

You can read the entire article for eWeek’s Strategic Partner issue here.

Enterprise IM Strategies

Enterprises are coming to terms with Instant Messaging (IM), finding that it has become the best way to accelerate new forms of collaboration and communication among their distributed workforces and stay productive as email inboxes swell with spam. For some companies, email has become the new snail mail. But before you bite the IM bullet, here are some questions to answer to formulate your potential IM strategy for your corporation.

Read the complete story in Computerworld here.

Texting as the New Digital Divide

I never thought when my mother first taught me touch typing back in elementary school that the skill would turn out to be anything but useful, but lately I am not so sure. There is a new digital divide coming, and it concerns those of us that can text and those that are still stuck in the 90s typing on our PCs.

I look with longing at the teens and 20-somethings that can compose long odes on their cell phones with ease. I think all those years messing with QWERTY and look where it has gotten me – an aging PC user who, like Scotty in the second (or was it thirdfourth) Star Trek movie, has to grab a keyboard to get anything really useful done on a computer. And I am sure that reference alone will date me anyway.

My attempts at texting usually are done in the presence of a member of the younger generation and usually end in dismal failure, when said youngster will grab my phone from me and with a few clicks of the buttons finish the message that has taken me several (seeming) hours to compose. I know my mom would be turning over in her grave seeing me struggle – she was proud of my typing skills back in the day. Now they don’t even teach “typing” anymore. Sigh.

Yes, cell phones and PDAs now come with their own keyboards, and some of them you can actually type things in if you have small enough fingers or are patient and careful. But texting, sending short SMS messages via your phone, is even better, because you can do it to just about anyone with a phone and your correspondents can immediately send you back a pithy reply – if they are adept at texting, that is.

These days email is too slow – imagine waiting an hour or more before someone can compose and reply. It seems so quaint now. “You know, junior, back when I was young we thought it was pretty cool when we could email someone around the world and get an answer the Very Next Day!” And Instant Messaging isn’t instant enough – you still need a PC or something like it to really manage your buddy list that quickly grows into the multiple dozens. Yes, today’s divide is all about immediate gratification, and communication. Delays of a few seconds just won’t do.

I came to this sad (at least, sad for me) conclusion this week when I was attending the New Communications Forum in Vegas this week, talking about the latest tech with podcasters, corporate bloggers, and other geeks extraordinaire. I witnessed a demo of Twitter, which is one of those texting apps that you put on your cell phone and you can tell a couple dozen of your closest friends exactly what you are doing at any given moment of the day, or night. Why bother going to sleep, when you can keep up with the ‘hood? Who needs reality TV anymore, when we can manufacture our own so easy?

It is ironic that I came to this conclusion in Vegas. I mean, here I sit on a bench next to a replica of the Grand Canal, watching fake gondoliers steer boats that have their own electric motors down a waterway that exists entirely inside a (man-made) building. I had lunch with a friend of mine yesterday and the hostess asked us if we wanted to sit “outside,” meaning at a table under a 50-foot painted sky with a view of the fake canal.  Talk about the new realities of the digital divide.

So, don’t text me your issues. I don’t really want to know that quickly. Email is good enough for me. And those of you that can text fluently, go with grace.

Group chats take hold in the enterprise

Tired of taking yet another meeting or wasting more time on more conference calls? Maybe it is time you tried group online chat. While far from a new technology, its popularity around the enterprise is finally taking off because it can deliver real bottom-line returns and can be a real productivity boost. Chat is just part of the overall trend towards better real-time communications that began when corporations moved first to voice mail instead of secretaries, then to email, and finally towards Instant Messaging (IM).

In this story for Techweb, I talk more about how chat is taking hold and why enterprise IT managers are attracted to it. The story was picked up for the print Information Week edition as well.

IM Profits for VARs

VARs should learn from their teenaged children and get on board the Instant messaging (IM) train. IM can solve a lot of problems as enterprise IT managers look for ways to clear out spam-filled email boxes, integrate far-flung project teams, and offer more productive uses of their communications infrastructure. With IM, corporate staff can multitask and carry on multiple conversations, find out if someone is available to answer a quick question, and other tasks that are cumbersome to do with emails and phone calls. VARs that aren’t yet facile with IM should get more involved in this technology and understand the numerous integration opportunities that IM offers.

There are several trends to take note of, and ways that VARs can leverage IM solutions:

First, IM is becoming more of an open systems play. IBM’s SameTime is now based on open source Eclipse software and offers more plug-in features that VARs can use to provide presence information such as when someone is busy, on the phone, or at their desk and available. “IBM has worked with the Google Maps API so you can highlight everyone on your buddy list and show where they are currently located on the map,” says Chris Miller of Connectria, a St. Louis messaging integrator. Miller also has clients that have taken open source code integrations with their directory servers to show the organizational hierarchy of their IM buddies. “This cuts down the time they have needed to find someone for a particular job,” he says.

The Jabber Software Foundation has also widened IM open source opportunities, and many VARs have jumped in with selling IM servers and add-on features based on these protocols. Jabber Inc. is a separate private company that sells its own IM server appliance, which can be a good starting point for system integrators that want to deploy their own enterprise IM solutions. “What Jabber has pioneered is the ability for interoperability, so you can use IM like your e-mail system,” says Ashley Roach, a server product manager at Denver-based Jabber Inc.

Second, IM networks are getting interconnected. The major public IM suppliers such as America Online, Yahoo, Microsoft’s MSN, and Google Talk all have connections to each other now, so that users on one system can chat with others without too much trouble. And the private IM suppliers such as Microsoft’s Live Communications Server and IBM’s SameTime both offer connections to various public IM networks. This means that corporations can use IM to communicate with their customers and get replies even faster than emails. Email is woefully inadequate for guaranteed message delivery, and clumsy when it comes to conducting business in real time.

For these reasons, IM networks have become more mission-critical, which translates into more opportunities for VARs. Two big ones are storage management, for archiving messages, and compliance for SOX and other corporate governance that requires auditing client conversations. “The financial sector has the biggest motivation for archiving and maintaining their IM records. And healthcare and energy are right behind financial and coming on strong,” says Arsenio Batoy, president of Optical Laser, in Huntington Beach CA and another IM distributor. “Archiving IM messages should be a part of every IT and HR policy that addresses archiving email messages. There is a pretty good business practice there and you have the opportunity to sell lots of professional services and go beyond just selling Exchange mailboxes.”

Third, IM is going beyond user-to-user communications, and now being implemented for one-to-many communications such as between applications and users. As an example, an overloaded router or a critical server goes down, software is written to automatically notify the help desk. In the old days, IT support personnel used to rely on pagers for getting this information, now more sophisticated messages can be sent over IM networks. There are a number of VARs that are active here deploying SameTime, Microsoft LCS, and Jabber-based solutions.

Finally, with increasing IM traffic comes increased need to protect IM networks and prevent this medium from becoming yet another virus and malware transmission vector, and several vendors such as FaceTime Communications, Akonix, and Symantec have beefed up their partner programs to work with VARs to deploy these solutions.

“The deployment opportunities are endless,” says Miller. “The tools are out there and there are ways to add your own branding to the IM software as well as provide back-end integration and add presence detection into many legacy systems.”

Cisco’s Internet Protocol Journal:

Instant Messaging (IM) has come of age and is close to becoming one of those protocols that offers something for everyone. Once the province of chatty teens looking to replace phone conversations with electronic ones, IM is now a corporate mainstay and part of a new breed of applications that are built around “presence detection,” the ability to determine when someone—or something—is online and available to communicate.

Indeed, IM is rapidly spreading across the corporate world and becoming an able replacement for overflowing voicemail and e-mail inboxes that are clogged with spam and buried in irrelevant and non-time-sensitive postings. If you must get through to a busy corporate executive, IM is becoming the fastest and most effective method of communicating. Move over CrackBerry.

You can read the rest of my article that was published in Cisco’s IPJ here from their archives.

AOLfree: You’ve Got Problems!

I haven’t run AOL software since about the time in the late 1990s when Marshall Rose and I were writing our book on Internet Messaging together. We wanted to call the book “You’ve Got Mail” but that is a story for another day. So when AOL announced last week that they were migrating to a free service for those of us that didn’t need their dialup connections any more (dialup? Who uses dialup?) I had to try it out.

Boy, did I enter the wayback machine, Mr. Peabody. Before I knew what was going on, my hard disk had filled up with AOL bloatware. I count the following programs now installed care of Time Warner:

AOL Coach, AOL Connection Services, AOL Deskbar, AOL Spyware Protector, AOL IE Toolbar, AOL You’ve Got Pictures screensaver, Real’s Player, QuickTime, and AOL Computer Check Up. Not to mention the AOL Uninstaller, which only uninstalls one of the above programs. As my friend Barry Gerber would say, who designed this crap?

The AOLfree version faithfully replicates the AOL paid experience: you have AOL IM, a browser to AOL’s portal (when was the last time you needed to check that page?), and of course, AOL email (if you can find a series of characters and numbers that no one else has already grabbed). But why would anyone want to do this? The days of a “walled garden” — as AOL once called its portal — are long over, and most people use whatever email and browser they want these days.

However, there are a couple of things that it doesn’t do, things that parents should know. One of the most useful things of a real AOL account was the ability to set children’s access to content and how they would use their IM and email accounts. While most teens these days know more than parents and how to get around these blocks, the pre-teen set can benefit from these controls. The AOLfree universe is completely free of parental controls.

But if you are still using AOL and don’t have youngsters around, you want to get off the AOL bus now. This is why their phone lines are being clogged with users who want out of their monthly AOL tax on their Internet access. BTW, the number to call is 1-888-265-8008 and operators are standing by 24/7. I will save you the trouble of looking it up on, which isn’t the easiest thing to find. And don’t get me started on how much of a maze AOLhelp online is. There are so many blind alleys on their Web site that any noob trying to figure this out isn’t going to get very far. Clearly, they are working on their site. (When I went under AOLhelp, account questions, price plans AOL offers; I got “We’re sorry, currently there are no available documents for this section.” Oops.)

Yes, there are some semi-useful tools, such as AOL Computer Check Up, which scans and attempts to fix your hard disk for things that are wrong with it, but there are better programs around for free, including from my friend Dave Methvin. And there is its Spyware blocker, but after installing all these other AOL thingies I am not sure that I can find the blocker among all my desktop clutter anymore. And why, pray tell, do I need both Real and QuickTime players on my machine? Certainly, one would be enough to play all that video content that AOL now is streaming at me, including the intro video with the cute blonde showing me what the software does, which is almost worth the entire hassle of installing and uninstalling AOLfree.

No, this is one piece of freeware that you get exactly what you pay for: a mish-mash of second-rate software, all so that you can have a “vanity” AOL email address to indicate to the rest of the world that you continue to be a clueless noob. Glenn Fleishman writes equally harsh language in this week’s newsletter:

AOL’s software still stinks. AOL’s email filtering is highly erratic. Any of us who run mailing lists are familiar with suddenly having all of our double opt-in, fully approved AOL users bounce our email for some obscure reason that’s impossible to address directly with AOL.

AOLfree is just another in piece of their software that continues to annoy me. I wrote a short review of their latest AIM Pro IM client for Computerworld that you can read here.

When I wrote that piece I got a few emails from people within AOL that wanted to talk to me. They didn’t provide phone numbers, and I assumed they were product managers so I emailed them back, saying I welcome a dialog. Never heard another peep out of them. Perhaps they didn’t receive my message — but this is just another indication of how hard it is to deal with the company. I think we can say that the merger with Time Warner has been successful at reverse cherry-picking the aspects of two dysfunctional corporate cultures and creating a worst-of-breed new media company.

AOL has done a terrific job of getting noobs on the Net, and providing an IM service for teens that is now being used by many businesses. But their software efforts suffer from coming from a large corporation that has lost its will to be an innovator. There isn’t any reason to use AOLfree. If you still have as your domain, it is time to consider other alternatives, like Google, Earthlink, and hundreds of other places that will do a better job.

How to build your own corporate IM system

Corporate IT managers who haven’t gotten on board with instant messaging need to start paying attention and evaluating how they will design their own IM systems. Before you dive into the world of IM, there are three basic strategies you will want to consider:

First, deploying one of the various IM blocking and monitoring products to prevent any unauthorized public IM use. Second, using software from Microsoft Corp. or IBM’s Lotus, the major private IM system vendors. Finally, building your own IM system using a variety of open sources.
These three strategies aren’t mutually exclusive, so you might want to mix and match.

You can read the article in Computerworld here.