Tech Primer: Group Chat Evolving Into E-Mail 2.0

Buying Chat Apps:
Questions To Ask


Do you need your own server or a hosted service?



How many different rooms or discussions do you want to host? Make sure your system won't run out of gas when it becomes popular.



What happens when you aren't in the room? How the chat products archive and search on previous conversations is critical.



How does your chat software populate its directory structure and interact with your existing Active Directory or LDAP servers?



Do you want to interoperate with public IM systems such as AOL or MSN?



Can your system create rooms on the fly from one-on-one conversations?

However, while all of those technologies have been one-to-one replacements for single conversations, chat is the beginning of a new movement toward replacing group meetings. It offers workable communications support for far-flung project teams, with the attendant obvious boost in productivity

The added good news is that IT managers can easily support chat applications, and CIOs can make a strong case for chat's return on investment, especially when compared with traditional voice conferencing and videoconferencing.

Consider chat's demonstrated utility in the crucible of the armed forces, where group chat sessions are replacing more traditional radio communications among naval battle groups. "You can coordinate who is going where and monitor your tactical situation," said Peter Saint-Andre, the executive director of the Jabber Software Foundation and supplier of the software to the military for that purpose.

Wall Street has led the way in the implementation of the technology because it offers traders a big, immediate payoff. "It's hard to be on the phone with 30 different guys at the same time," said Brian Trudeau, the CIO of Amerex, an energy-trading firm in Sugar Land, Texas. "Being a brokerage house, you want to be in contact with as many of your customers as you can and all at once."

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"Chat is perfect, especially for busy people in the financial services industry who don't have the time to put together a telephone conference call," said Melanie Gordon, communications manager for Reuters' Collaboration Services in New York City. Reuter's sells its own chat services software.

Traders are attracted to chat because they can create different rooms or chat channels for each market, and can conduct virtual meetings throughout the day without having to take time to be away from their desks. They also can work on more things concurrently and make better decisions, too. "Investment banks will have one chat room per trading desk, and everyone will be in there watching that particular market," said Saint-Andre. "Traders don't need their multiline phones anymore, since they can be in 30 or 100 different rooms, tracking different markets."

Spam Relief

Chat and IM have some intrinsic advantages over other communications technologies, such as e-mail. First, chat provides inbox relief from the spam, viruses, and malware that clog a company's e-mail pipes. E-mail also is a one-to-one communications tool, whereas chat is multiuser. Companies that have implemented chats have seen their daily dose of e-mail drop, and, in some cases, chat almost completely eliminates internal e-mails. "My internal e-mail traffic, particularly with my close colleagues, has dropped dramatically now that we're all on IM all the time," said Tim Bray, the director of Web technologies for Sun Microsystems.

Chat software also is easy to learn and leverages the one-on-one chatting style made popular with IM software from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo; it's a natural extension of such tools. For staffers who grew up in an IM universe during their teens and college years, it's an easy transition and a natural means of communication. Its real-time nature means that questions get answered quickly and without a lot of the back-and-forth typical in the e-mail universe, and it facilitates multitasking.

"With online chats and IM, a call center can handle multiple calls simultaneously, versus a single phone call," said Arsenio Batoy, president of Optical Laser, a distributor of storage, content management, message management, and security products.

An additional case for boarding the group-chat wagon stems from the availability of a growing core of chat-savvy developers. They're building chat-based applications using a variety of open-source tools and well-documented sets of protocols. Those developers are constructing sophisticated systems, which include full-blown chat systems from Parlano, Jabber, Antepo, Jive Software, Reuters, Userplane, and others.

Take Userplane, which earlier this year was purchased by AOL. It sells private Web-based IM solutions for online communities. Its chat engines are found everywhere from dating sites to social networking sites, such as and

"We can help generate more customer loyalty, and generate more page views, with our tools," said Michael Jones, the CEO and one of the founders of Userplane. (Meebo is another example of a company that can add chat to Web pages.)

It helps that chat is at the center of a series of interoperability and standards movements, which makes it easier to build more advanced applications for it, as well. Those revolve around software using the protocol called the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. XMPP is the formalization of the core protocols created by the Jabber open-source community in 1999.

Jeremie Miller developed the original Jabber server back in 1998. Now the project has reached critical mass. Notable is the wide number of different server and client formulations that support XMPP. sells a commercial license, along with a combination of General Public License-based licensed servers and other commercial versions. The project has supported the efforts of dozens of different client implementations. Last year, support reached a new milestone with Google Talk and the Gizmo Project using those protocols.

At the heart of XMPP are the XML document markup standards. Application developers can manipulate their documents as part of chat sessions, such as acting on a particular purchase order or invoice, and have chat sessions produce various kinds of structured documents. "This is the wave of the future, where we are going beyond just plain text chats and doing more structured information management," said Jabber's Saint-Andre.

Complementing the standards efforts is other work to extend basic IM functionality into new areas, including group chats and support for multiple IM identities, along with the ability to interoperate across various private and public networks. Among those with clients or working on clients are Jabber, Microsoft's Live Messenger, Lotus' Sametime, Reuters, Yahoo's Messenger, Apple's iChat AV, and AOL.

Also of note is the work at VoIP powerhouse Skype, which earlier this fall added group chat features to its Windows-based IM software. What makes all these efforts possible is a relatively simple protocol structure and easy-to-assemble building block pieces that make up each IM and chat application.

Easy Support

Perhaps the most welcome advantage for IT personnel is that chat is relatively simple to administer. "Managing chat is much like managing an IM system, and deployment is very easy," said Nick Fera, the CEO of Parlano, who sells a chat application called MindAlign. "You need to establish ethical walls and compliance rules, but otherwise, it fits in real easy from an IT perspective."

More of the IM vendors such as AOL, Microsoft, and Lotus have begun to open their programming interfaces to enable businesses to build presence-aware applications. Lotus' Sametime, for example, is now entirely based on IBM's Eclipse open source software, making it easier for developers to extend its functionality.

Another example is Connectria, a Lotus Sametime partner that has worked on extensions to Sametime that literally map where particular staffers are in the world. "You can quickly look up someone's job position in the company," said Chris Miller, an analyst with the developer. "It cuts down the time to find someone for a particular job or task."

Other business IT departments are finding new ways to incorporate chats and presence-awareness into their existing applications, such as sales force and training applications. They're finding chat is easy to adopt, adapt, and support, and they can start up chat channels through which each project team can collaborate. Supporting chat servers is similar to supporting other communications servers, such as those for e-mail, and the chat system can be deployed as an internal support tool to help answer IT-related questions and leverage already-stretched IT staffers.

Chat also is a fairly lightweight application. "It isn't another system or a standalone application that IT needs to train people on or integrate into other systems, or something that I have to force people to use," said Saint-Andre. "It is a natural way to talk and easy to build on."

One illustration of this is with the automotive company Reynolds and Reynolds. It uses Jabber servers to monitor the status its own software at numerous automotive dealerships around the world. The IT department at Reynolds can quickly see if the software is down and take steps to get it working again.

Accredited Home Lenders is using online chat sessions to provide its loan brokers a secure and reliable means of communicating in real time with loan specialists to resolve issues with loan applications. And Ecreation built a virtual disk jockey for a Dutch radio station that also broadcasts over the Internet, allowing the station to take requests from listeners around the world via Microsoft's IM network.

Finally, Microsoft is encouraging future developments and interoperability. The company has come out with a new version of its Live Communications Server that can be easily extended by many partners and commercial software vendors to support chat applications. It also supports the Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP, that can be incorporated in many other chat systems, such as Parlano's.

Growing Popularity
With such obvious, myriad benefits, the question arises as to why chat hasn't become more accepted by business IT departments.