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U.S. Navy rides the IM wave

Instant messaging now covers the waterfront and beyond, as the Navy launches a portal that lets military personnel train and connect with experts in their field.

The U.S. Navy is catching the instant messaging craze.

The organization last week rolled out its new Navy Knowledge Online (NKO) portal, where active duty, reserve and retired personnel can gather online for training, learning and connecting with experts in their field. A major part of the portal is the instant messaging feature, said Lt. Eric Morris, NKO program manager.

Morris said sailors are exchanging about 10,000 instant messages per day, and the pace is increasing. "It's caught on like wildfire," he said.

Naval officers are hoping the system will help them train personnel, recruit new people, and help sailors at sea better communicate, especially as the situation continues to heat up in the Middle East.

Right now, the information that travels across the system is unclassified, but the Navy plans to launch a classified version in 45 to 60 days. The organization hopes to ensure security by running the technology on its own internal secure system and by allowing local commanders to turn access to the system on and off depending on the situation.

Morris said he's used a version of chat before for tactical operations while aboard a ship out at sea. He said that in the future, officers may use IM to communicate in the field. "It's conceivable that the classified version will be used to talk about what they're doing," he said.

Organizations large and small are increasingly on the radar screens of instant messaging companies. As many as 84 percent of all organizations use some sort of instant messenger application, according to a report issued last year by Osterman Research of Black Diamond, Wash., although much of it is for unofficial use. Hoping to cash in on the trend, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN, and America Online have released corporate instant messaging products. Both the Navy and the Army use a system created by Bantu.

Morris said he recently engaged in an extended IM session with a young man who's part of the Navy's potential enlistee program. The man contacted him just 12 hours after he gained access to the portal to ask questions about Navy career paths and how he could eventually become an officer.

Morris said he was astounded that the 18-year-old, who wasn't even yet an enlistee, managed to easily track down someone with 20 years of Navy experience and pepper him with questions. "He didn't know me from Adam, but he found me," Morris said. "We'd have never been able to that without IM."

Right now much of the system is being used by personnel who are on land or on docked ships, but the Navy is experimenting with a ship-to-shore version and trying to work out bandwidth issues. Some ships have already released such a system.

"The bandwidth needed to make a telephone call from ship to shore is many, many times greater than it is to exchange an IM," Morris said.