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Barry Appelman

If it weren’t for Barry Appelman and crew, instant messaging (IM) might not be as ubiquitous as it is today. Whether that’s a good thing is in the eye of the beholder of all those blinking, pinging boxes.

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Published for the Week Of October 18, 2004

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FOR: Instant-messaging development

If it weren’t for Barry Appelman and crew, instant messaging (IM) might not be as ubiquitous as it is today. Whether that’s a good thing is in the eye of the beholder of all those blinking, pinging boxes.

Appelman, now a top AOL executive, spent years at IBM’s famous Thomas Watson Research Lab where he and colleagues set up IM on the mainframe system and wrote programs that would let each know when their pals were actually online and thus able to communicate.

It is that marriage of screen buddies and “presence awareness” that sparked the explosion of IM as we know it. “You don’t really want to see someone online and then find out they’re not [really] online,” Appelman said.

AOL launched its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in 1997 and now claims 36 million active AIM users. “There is some need it fulfills. Once you start using it, it’s hard to live without it,” Appelman said. Many now-devoted users once viewed IM askance as “stalker” technology, he added.

Appelman said AOL, which launched AIM about the time Microsoft debuted its rival MSN network, was primarily motivated by the desire to make the AOL network more interesting. He disputes a contention by some that AIM was a ploy to get AOL members to use more of their paid online minutes. “By the time we launched [AIM], we’d already gone to a flat rate,” he said.

Whatever the initial motivation, IM is here to stay. Many channel players use it to keep up with customers, suppliers and partners. Avnet Partner Solutions, Tempe, Ariz., uses a secure IM network to keep in touch with its reseller partners. And AvcomEast President Rob Wolfe uses it constantly himself and said he also sees business in bolstering IM security and archiving in corporate accounts.

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