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Yahoo pushes enterprise IM

The Web portal makes a grassroots appeal as part of a sales effort targeting corporate IT managers who have banned its product at work.

Yahoo is tapping its millions of instant messaging users in hopes of ending what it says is a trend among corporate technology managers to ban the popular product at work.

The Web portal has begun a campaign called "Save Smiley," in reference to Yahoo Instant Messenger's smiley-face icons. The campaign, which has launched in certain areas of Yahoo, asks users to inform Yahoo if a company has blocked instant messaging in the workplace. The Web giant plans to then approach these companies and to try to sell its enterprise IM service to their information technology departments.

"We've been seeing there's a trend emerging to block Messenger within corporations for security and control concerns," said Hillary Mickell, senior director of marketing in Yahoo's enterprise solutions division.

Mickell said the campaign generally targets Yahoo users who access the Web site from work during the daytime. It is designed to use the Web portal's hefty consumer base as a way to set up contact with IT managers, she said.

Yahoo began selling its enterprise product officially at the end of February, but a representative declined to say which companies had signed up for the service.

The initiative underscores the ambitions harbored by the many companies interested in selling instant messaging software to enterprises. As instant messaging use increases, some corporate IT departments are banning it, while others are demanding that Internet service providers--including big three Yahoo, America Online and Microsoft's MSN--offer security and manageability features.

This trend has become a threat and an opportunity for instant messaging providers. On one hand, service providers risk losing users through corporations shutting down instant messaging services and turning to other software vendors that will comply with their demands for better security. At the same time, though, the big three Internet companies are jumping on the opportunity to sell versions of their IM services--which are traditionally free--to the enterprise market.

However, some analysts think that consumer IM client software, although it's being used by hundreds of millions of people around the world, will have a harder time stepping into the enterprise.

"Part of the problem is if their heritage is that of consumer-grade products, it's tougher to get into enterprise because they carry that reputation," said Michael Osterman of market research firm Osterman Research, which studies the enterprise IM market. "Anything they offer may be perceived as a light version of true enterprise-grade product, even if that might not be the case."

Software companies such as IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems also provide enterprise IM or collaboration services. These companies believe they can lead the market, as they already have a foothold in selling to enterprises.

Meanwhile, some Microsoft divisions have placed instant messaging at the center of the software giant's strategy to power communications networks in the enterprise. This summer, the company will launch Real Time Communications Server 2003, formerly known as Greenwich, which will become the cornerstone of its efforts to create software that can meld a company's telephone and computer networks.

Real Time Communications Server 2003 will initially launch with an enterprise version of Microsoft's Windows Messenger instant messaging software. Executives plan to introduce voice calling, video conferencing and e-mail in future versions.

For now, the big three service providers remain firmly at an advantage because they have the largest number of users. As of January, AOL Time Warner's AOL unit had 62 million instant messaging users, MSN had 20 million and Yahoo had 18 million, according to subscriber tracker ComScore Media Metrix.