IBM heeds message to integrate IM, e-mail

An experimental project within Big Blue could help pave the way to better integration of instant messaging with e-mail and other business applications.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
6 min read
IBM wants to take the mess out of messaging, with an experimental application called NotesBuddy.

NotesBuddy, which is already used extensively inside Big Blue, seeks to blur the borders between instant messaging and e-mail.

In NotesBuddy, IM dialogs are stored in e-mail in-boxes, and people can search for them by subject or other classifications. The application can also automatically determine whether to send a note as a message or e-mail, depending on the present status of the recipient. Links to the company's phone system also exist.


What's new:
IBM's NotesBuddy, which is already used extensively inside the company, blurs the lines of communication between instant messaging and e-mail, as well as other applications.

Bottom line:
NotesBuddy could point the way toward a more unified, useful version of IM--and it could spark a strong desire among companies to integrate all forms of communication.

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Indeed, NotesBuddy is a project that aims to eliminate one of the major problems of IM. Namely, that it often functions like a technological island.

With popular versions of IM, "you have no connection to your business documents," said Alan Tannenbaum, a senior technical staff member at IBM whose research focuses on human-computer interaction.

NotesBuddy could help point the way toward a more unified, useful version of IM. As the use of IM as a business tool grows, the urgency to unite instant messaging with other software is increasing. At IBM alone, there are 315,000 employees and 280,000 regular IM users, Tannenbaum said. About 140,000 employees, nearly half the company, are active on IM at any given time.

While IBM has no plans to release NotesBuddy as an independent application, some of its features have already been incorporated into Big Blue's Lotus e-mail and calendar software, and more will follow, the company said.

"It makes a lot of sense to link (e-mail and messaging) together," said Robert Mahowald, an analyst at IDC. "In the next three to four years, I don't expect to see any stand-alone IM clients."

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IM integration is already occurring with other applications. Last year, Yahoo struck a deal with Web conference company WebEx that enables companies using Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition to launch Web meetings during an IM session. Similarly, Microsoft has integrated messaging into the Live Meeting videoconference service it acquired from PlaceWare and has launched software, called Live Communications Server, that can integrate instant messaging with the company's Office software. Further integration is inevitable, analysts said.

"Customers want to collaborate (with) the applications they are working in," Mahowald said.

Microsoft is also testing automatic collaboration through its Notification tool. The technology will be embedded in future Microsoft software and is intended to let computers and cell phones automatically filter messages, schedule meetings without their owners' help and derive strategies for getting in touch with other people.

"Over time, what will be interesting to see is how companies integrate all forms of communication so that a user could respond to an incoming voice message with an (instant) message or filter out unwanted or obsolete messages," said Duane Bray, who heads up interactive design for Ideo, one of the world's largest industrial designers.

The move to integrate IM with other applications "signals the fact that IM is becoming a serious part of business communications," Bray said.

"We're all struggling with managing an overwhelming amount of communications," Bray added.

To address this issue, IBM kicked off an "Ease of Use" initiative about five years ago that seeks to create computers and software applications that operate more intuitively, said Tony Temple, an IBM fellow and vice president of the Ease of Use program.

The effort applies to PCs and cell phones, as well as voice navigation systems for phone systems and consoles for managing server banks.

Building a better IM
With the Ease of Use and NotesBuddy projects, IBM approached the design of its tools with a blank slate, a typical method for the computing giant. Rather than show a focus group a proposed prototype, IBM simply starts by asking people what they might want in a computer.

"We never get through to looking at a visual treatment until we get to detail design," Temple said. "The higher fidelity of materials you show people, the less likely they are to criticize it, because they are concerned they will offend the designer."

A large number of testers is also crucial, the company said. In earlier years, focus groups might have consisted of 12 people from the same vicinity. Now, IBM uses a broader, more multicultural group of testers. More than 30,000 people have downloaded various versions of NotesBuddy, Temple said. Roughly 85 percent of those people come from inside IBM.

NotesBuddy seeks to resolve some of the most common complaints with IM. In part, messaging owes some of its problems to its heritage. It grew up independently but rapidly became very popular.

As a result, many of the most commonly used features of e-mail--such as automatic message storage or the ability to forward messages without cutting and pasting--are largely absent from IM. In addition, e-mail and IM often share features that are similar but function differently, such as address books and buddy lists, which ideally should be identical.

"In the early days, instant messaging vendors and e-mail vendors were generally different people," Tannenbaum said.

"Status" and "availability" were one of the first messaging features to be tied into the Lotus e-mail client. In Lotus Notes 6.5, a bug pops up next to e-mail addresses in an in-box to indicate that the sender is also available on IM. This notification system was one of the first features to come from NotesBuddy.

In the most current version of NotesBuddy, IBM is experimenting with color to signal availability of a person. If someone is available, for instance, his or her name is published in green in both e-mail boxes and IM address lists.

IBM's IM tool lets users substitute a picture instead of an IM name. During a demonstration on Tannenbaum's system, a picture of Sam Palmisano--IBM's chief executive--was in black and white, meaning that he was out. By contrast, the chosen picture of one of his colleagues was in color, indicating that the employee was online.

Much of the current work on NotesBuddy revolves around better organization to avoid information overload. An italicized address, for example, indicates that a message from that person needs to be received immediately. If the recipient is offline, the message will be sent to a pager.

Conversely, if a person is offline, but the message isn't urgent, instant messages are converted to e-mail to eliminate the "stale message" phenomenon. Messages can be typed or left as a voice message. Text messages can be read or heard in simulated voice.

With IBM's in-house NotesBuddy system, users can move a cursor over a person's IM identifier, prompting a small window that shows the person's full name, title, the group they work in, their phone number and their current status for availability.

NotesBuddy also saves IM in e-mail in-boxes. People can insert a subject line on an IM message that lets them later search for a message by topic, name or date. By contrast, with most versions of IM, the instant messages vanish unless they're consciously preserved, and then they generally get saved as text files in independent folders.

"The need for saving messages and retrieving them is going to be a critical factor in the future use of instant messaging," Tannenbaum said. Preservation like this isn't part of Lotus Notes now, but it will be, he said.

Another design experiment in NotesBuddy is vanishing windows. Because some people keep five or six chats going at once, their desktops can become cluttered. In NotesBuddy, active dialog windows can be placed under the graphic for the person's address. There isn't a window that clogs the desktop, but the chat continues.

"You need things like this in chat, or it becomes overwhelming," Temple said.