AOL Advances IM Platform

America Online has released the latest version of its instant messaging platform, one that analysts say advances the technology that has the potential to alter both the online and communications landscapes.

ICQ 5 includes a number of new features, including an upgraded voice-chat service that uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to enable people to talk freely to one another over their instant connections.

Better Video Feature

AOL said the new release also includes improved video instant messaging that enables users to save, store and resend digital snapshots from their video IM sessions. Other new features include more customization options for users of their chat interface, upgraded security and one-click options for refusing to accept chat sessions.

Analysts said the advances are a glimpse into what’s to come as instant messaging evolves into an all-in-one communications platform for consumers and business users alike.

“IM will have broad implications for the future of all communication from e-mail to phone calls,” Enderle Group principal analyst Rob Enderle told the E-Commerce Times. “In a few years, we’ll likely wonder what we did without it.”

Increased use of IM could have other implications as well, by making people more comfortable with always-on, instant technologies.

The e-commerce industry has long considered selling over IM to be a possibility, and while analysts agree, that any significant developments in that area are still in the future, the rapid changes in the IM arena are a reminder of the potential that exists.

Instant Everything

Some analysts see instant messaging as having important commercial uses. For instance, payments could be confirmed, or denied, instantly through such a platform, either from in-store computers or even from mobile devices.

That type of development might be impeded, however, as security concerns continue to be raised about various forms of instant messaging, including AOL’s popular platform.

This week, Websense Security said that there was a 300 percent increase in attacks against IM platforms in the first quarter of this year compared to the same time frame last year and that attacks are increasingly becoming more sophisticated and “blended,” with more malware bearing trojans or spyware and more messages aimed at phishing for personal data.

“Both social engineering and vulnerabilities within IM client technologies are being used to gain access,” said Dan Hubbard, senior director of security and technology research for Websense. “IM will continue to be used as a social engineering tool to gather information about users and as a means of dropping malicious code onto user’s machines. The identity of users is often anonymous, and the very nature of real-time communications like IM presents a new opportunity for attack for hackers.”

Not that those concerns are slowing IM adoption. Research firm IDC estimates that there will be 450 million users worldwide within two years, many of them employees who have downloaded the freeware without authorization.

Enterprises Weary

One area where the advances aren’t likely to give AOL any additional traction is among enterprises, many of which are only now awakening to the potential of IM and other forms of instant communication.

Enderle said that AOL and rival Yahoo are “both perceived as consumer oriented companies with little in the way of enterprise access, understanding, or sales capability.” Many enterprises are moving slowly anyway on IM, because of security risks and other concerns.

Microsoft has the upper hand in the battle for enterprise IM, Enderle contends. Microsoft recently acquired Groove networks, a presence-computing software firm that enables long-distance collaboration, such as multiple users working on a single document, as well as messaging and e-mail.

“Microsoft’s connection to Exchange provides them with a huge advantage,” Enderle added. “Still, all of the products in this segment have a heavy consumer look and feel, and most are installed by users, not IT organizations, which mitigates this advantage somewhat. Microsoft fully intends to create a formal enterprise offering, and Groove will be a big part of that future.”

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