Khoa (Steven) Nguyen
Instant Messaging (IM) is a form of electronic communication between two or more users who are simultaneously connected to the Internet, allowing for fast-paced chat sessions that mimic actual voice communications. In order for instant messaging to work, both parties must be online at the same time, must be willing to accept messages, and must be connected to IM services that ensure the exchange of presence and message data. As IM's popularity grows, interoperability between IM services becomes more important to enable users to communicate with the people they most want to reach.
Instant Messaging, or IM as it has traditionally been called, is a technology that allows people at home or work to link through real-time, one-on-one conversations which are often referred to as "instant messages." There are many competing IM products and services; some aimed at the general public and others at business users. Of all the numerous Instant Messaging programs that are currently in existence, four main ones have the highest percentage of consumer use. One of the oldest and strongest Instant Messaging systems, ICQ (as in, “I seek you”) claims the title of being the world’s largest online communication network. The users of MSN Messenger Service cannot only send instant messages back and forth, but they can also use features integrated with the Outlook Express e-mail program, the NetMeeting conferencing software, and the DirectPlay gaming service. Yahoo's version of instant messaging service is Yahoo! Messenger, a colorful instant messaging client that offers text and voice chat as well as a wide range of other features. Yet, AOL is the recognized leader in Instant Messaging programs with millions of IM users in the United States. In the future, look not only for IM standards but also for new types of IM, involving voice and video. As far as mediums, IM will expand beyond PCs. E-mail will most likely become secondary to IM, similar to how voice mail and answering machines are secondary to the telephone. Already having made several landmark advances in the five years since it reached heightened popularity, instant messaging will continue to develop technologically, eventually becoming a staple program in society.
It is inevitable that IM will find its way to a broader user group, which will also include people at the corporate level. Businesses have always adopted any means of making their operations more efficient and effective, from the fax, cell phone, laptops, emails, video conferencing etc. As long as the benefits outweigh the cost and risks associated, companies will have a hard time not adopting any new technology that might give them an edge over competitors. IM may soon be the new fad of any enterprise if the problems of security and interoperability are addressed correctly and the right measures implemented.
Currently there are few IM that are secure enough for corporate implementation. Most of the popular IM’s such as AIM, MSN Instant Messenger and ICQ, are only developed for private individuals and not for business purposes. What business networks need are secure hosts with secure links to any connected devices. In addition, the security at the file level is paramount because IT managers would want to ensure that any filesharing and file access are authorized.
With big name software companies such as Microsoft, Sun, Lotus, IBM etc showing tremendous investment of resources in this issue alongside the smaller independent ones (Jabber.org, Wiredred). IM messaging may be the next big thing, it just needs some revision over security and interoperability issues.
XML expands compatibility within instant messaging by providing an open-sourced, extensible protocol that is interoperable over all methods of IM. Some clients, such as Jabber, are based on XML and provide many benefits towards compatibility. Since XML is open-sourced, users may change and customize their XML based IM servers to any way they see fit, allowing users more operability and security (XML IM can even be used behind a firewall if need be). The extensibility of XML allows for ease of use in any aspect of a client service, hence Jabber is built from the ground up from XML, and allows for variation and a more complex structure which would not have been possible though HTML. Since all forms of instant messaging can be translated into XML, clients can interoperate the services of each client and bring them onto a single platform for increased compatibility. Uses of services such as AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, etc. can be incorporated into a single, open-sourced network that allows for a broader and interoperatble means of communication. In this way, XML brings the Internet one step closer to universal instant messaging.
Instant messaging faces a major hurdle in it's growth: security. The fact remains, however, that a majority of IM clients currently used are not designed for business use and, moreoever, do not provide strong authentication. Authentication is critical to verifying the sender of the message. It has been suggested that digital certificates be implemented in future IM programs to overcome this.
The reason IM faces security issues is that, like the major e-mail protocols, commercial IM protocols emphasize speed and convenience over built-in security. Future IM programs, like Windows Messenger, promise stronger encryption. Encryption is essential so that passwords, as well as messages, are not intercepted and made understandable to snoops.
Aside from the authenticity and integrity of messages being sent, IM faces the security risks of human error. The security of major chat clients is one that relies on each end-user to make independent security decisions rather than relying on a central enforceable security policy. Users can easily make the mistake of conversing confedential company information over insecure channels without realizing it. What results is a broader base of exposure to risk across a network with less central control, making security policies that make chat client usage difficult to implement and enforce. In house messaging programs like Lotus Sametime rely on a server that is within the network. This permits traditional security methods, like the firewall, to fulfill the role of filtering traffic. Until IM technology catches up, the best security is to have educated users.