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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

NOTHING.BUT.NET WITH RICK KLAU

Easy Instant Messaging

These instant communications applications offer solid benefits law offices. Will one work for you?

Once considered child’s play with its own indecipherable shorthand, instant messaging has taken root in the business world. One recent survey indicated that workplace use of instant messaging rose more than 100 percent in 2001, and that business users spend 45 percent more time on instant messaging than do home users.

Are you using instant messaging inside your firm? Several law firms are already incorporating instant messaging into their Web sites—allowing visitors to interact directly with a client service or business development person. Those who haven’t yet embraced instant messaging are missing out on some real advantages: fewer e-mails and easier, faster communication on time-sensitive matters.

The Big Three: Yahoo, AOL and MSN

AOL, Yahoo and MSN provide the three most popular instant messaging applications available. What many people don’t know is that you don’t need to be a paying customer of any of these services to use their chat applications. Instant messaging remains one of the few truly free applications on the Internet.

Deciding which to use is largely a matter of personal taste. There’s nothing preventing you from installing all three and then deciding which one you prefer. If the majority of people you want to correspond with are already using one of the applications discussed here, you’ll probably want to use that one. If you have correspondents on multiple platforms, read on for some tips.

But first things first. Here’s how to sign on and take off with the Big Three.

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM): www.aim .com. To get started with AOL Instant Messenger, you’ll need to create a screen name at aim.com. This is a simple process, but since AIM has tens of millions of users, finding a name that is unique and memorable may take some time. Once that’s done, download and install the application, which shouldn’t take too long. (Even on a dial-up, the download shouldn’t require more than a few minutes.) Then enter your screen name and password.

Yahoo! Messenger: www.messenger .yahoo.com. If you use Yahoo’s personalized news page (My Yahoo!) or use Yahoo! Mail, then you already have a Yahoo I.D. This I.D. will serve as your username for Yahoo’s Messenger, so just proceed to the download and insert that I.D. and your password.

MSN Messenger: www.msn.com. MSN relies on the Microsoft service Passport (www.passport.com) to identify its users. So you’ll need a Passport before getting MSN Messenger up and running. Don’t worry, getting it configured takes just a few steps. (Note: If you already use Hotmail, Microsoft’s free Web-based e-mail application, then you already have a Passport—it’s your Hotmail address.)

Hello? Anybody Out There?

At this point, you’ve got your chat application installed, you’re logged in, and nothing happens. Much like a telephone is only useful if there’s someone on the other end, instant messaging applications are only valuable if there’s someone to chat with. Find out what your correspondents’ screen names are, and then use the chat application’s "Add Contact" wizard to add your buddies to your list.

Each application will tell you when your friends, family members or co-workers are logged on to the instant messaging service. When they’re online, the instant messaging system will take care of delivering your messages to their screens. If they reply, their messages will show up in the same window that opened when you typed your outgoing messages to them.

Which One Will You Use?

AIM has the easiest user interface. If you’re looking for a simple, tested application supported by millions of users, AIM is your best bet. It’s light on advanced features, but AIM users typically look for straightforward functionality—the ability to store buddy lists and the ability to send messages back and forth.

The Yahoo and MSN applications share one particularly nice feature for business users—the ability to conference in other participants. This is useful if you’re trying to get a number of participants to chat at the same time.

One special advantage that Yahoo offers is the ability to add both voice and video to its chat system. Both work remarkably well on even dial-up connections, though you’ll certainly benefit from faster connections. On a recent trip to London, I was able to watch my two sons and talk to them using Yahoo! Messenger. Neat.

In addition, both Yahoo and MSN rely on their parent portals to deliver "alerts": You can configure your instant messaging client to direct messages to any Internet-enabled device (PDA or cell phone). This can be handy for stock alerts, traffic reports or any other time-sensitive information you want delivered to you automatically when you’re not at your computer.

But Wait, My Friends Are on AOL and I’m on Yahoo!

One of the biggest frustrations with the various instant messaging applications today is that none of them talk to each other. Imagine the chaos if AT&T customers weren’t able to talk to Sprint customers. That’s exactly what we have with instant messaging—your choice of provider determines who you are able to write to.

One solution is simply to download all the major instant messaging applications and leave them running and logged in. Not surprisingly, this is inefficient and something of a waste of resources. Why have three separate applications running when they’re all supposed to do the same thing?

It’s Esperanto—Trillian: www.trillian.cc

Into this dilemma has stepped the tiny company Cerulean Studios. It has created a nifty little application called Trillian, which is the Esperanto of instant messaging programs. Trillian can talk to all the major providers. This alone caused me to dump the individual applications in favor of Trillian. The end result is that in one window, I can see which of my friends are online, regardless of which system they are using. If I want to chat with someone, I just double-click on that person’s name.

The only downside, as far as I can see, is that the individual instant messaging services could decide to shut down access for Trillian users at any time. (This, in fact, happened to another attempt at cross-system communications, Jabber.) The worst-case scenario is that you have to download the individual messaging applications again if Trillian fails. In the meantime, I’m increasingly fond of Trillian’s roll-up view of my various connected correspondents.

Share Your Stuff—Groove: www.groove.net

There’s yet another alternative. If AIM is at one end of the spectrum—simple, easy, free—then Groove is at the other end. Much more than an instant messaging application, Groove is designed to promote complete collaboration among individual users.

Ray Ozzie, founder of the company that gave birth to what is now known as Lotus Notes, started Groove five years ago. Groove incorporates instant messaging, but it also gives two or more users the ability to maintain a shared calendar, shared documents, shared contacts, discussion threads, project management functionality and much more.

Where Groove excels is in ad hoc collaboration between two or more people. It’s simple to start a Groove "space" and invite others to participate. The software costs $49 and runs on any Windows desktop. (If you’re using Office XP, you’ll find many deep links between the two applications; Groove was one of the first applications to leverage a number of XP-specific features.) Unlike Notes, there’s no "server" component. Groove relies on each individual desktop to keep things humming along.

The most significant aspect of Groove is its ability to mimic one of the key advantages of Lotus Notes—synchronization—by keeping copies of everything in a Groove workspace on your local computer. When you’re done working offline and have a connection to the Internet, you simply go online and sync your stuff with the others who are using Groove.

Keep Away from the Rabbit Hole

Instant messaging is about sharing information. It gives users the ability to quickly answer questions, get out messages and receive information they need. The risk is to go farther down the rabbit hole of accessibility: Instant messaging abuse will result in someone being constantly interrupted. So use your messaging system’s "Away" feature liberally. This will tell anyone trying to correspond with you that you’re not available.

At its best, instant messaging can be a good complement to e-mail. If used well, it will reduce the messages in your inbox—since many of your correspondents can use this easier, faster method to ask time-sensitive questions.

Rick Klau (rklau@interfacesoftware.com) is Vice President of Vertical Markets at Interface Software, Inc.,and a co-author of the recently released ABA LPM book

The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet (2nd edition).