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Instant Messaging Is Growing Up, Going to Work

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page E01


If you're an avid instant messenger, you probably know what I mean: "Instant messaging doesn't work for me, does it work for you?" Yet I appear to be on the way to becoming a minority, a fuddy-dud resisting the text-chat party. Instant messaging, or IM, is catching on with adults in a big way as it moves rapidly into the workplace, according to recent surveys. In fact, analysts predict IM soon will overtake e-mail as the No. 1 form of electronic communication.

Already, more than four in 10 adult Internet users in the United States use instant messaging software, and one in five IM users is sending instant messages at work, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

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"We are seeing the beginning of something that will get bigger as instant messaging becomes a standard tool in workplaces in the next couple of years," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.

Instant messaging software, for those few remaining uninitiated folks, allows people to send text messages over the Internet and have them appear almost instantly to friends and colleagues. Equally important, most IM software allows people to detect when their designated friends or colleagues are online with indicators that flash or play sounds when people sign on or off.

Pew's report on adult usage follows a similar survey released last week by America Online, a major provider of instant message software. AOL found that if teenagers are included, a substantial majority of American Internet users -- 59 percent of the total -- are using instant messaging. "E-mail took much longer to see that kind of growth," said Brian Curry, senior director of network services in AOL's instant message unit.

Anyone with teenagers knows already that there is a huge generation gap in IM usage. In AOL's survey, IM usage ran 90 percent among those age 13 to 21; 71 percent for ages 22 to 34; 55 percent for ages 35 to 54; and 48 percent for 55 and older.

It was the second year in a row that AOL commissioned an outside firm to survey 4,510 people 13 and older in 20 big cities. Pew surveyed 2,204 people 18 and older in both urban and rural areas.

AOL found even more people sending instant messages at work than Pew did -- 27 percent of all IM users, up a whopping 71 percent over last year.

IM is still mostly an ad hoc tool in the workplace, something that employees have brought in to roughly 75 percent of large companies and started using without the official blessing of their technology departments, according to Lou Latham, an analyst for Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., technology research firm. Latham said many workers are using relatively insecure public IM networks at the office, such as the free IM services available from AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, subjecting their companies to risks from viruses, worms and similar problems.

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