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SMALL BUSINESS | Business Tools

Don't Delay! Instant Messaging Takes Time Lag Out of E-Mail

April 01, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just because I work at a home office by myself doesn't mean that I work alone. As do a lot of small-business owners, I collaborate with people scattered across the globe. In my case, most of them are editors or producers. For you, they may be customers, contractors or business partners.

Communicating with colleagues in the same office suite is relatively easy--you meet them in the hall or walk over to their offices or cubicles. Some companies have message systems on a network that allow co-workers to communicate electronically. These messages are like e-mail except that you don't have to wait for the recipient to log on, check for mail and respond. Such instant messages demand (and typically get) attention the moment they pop up on the other person's screen.

But now you don't have to be on the same network to exchange instant messages. You can do it with anyone who has access to the Internet, regardless of where they are located.

America Online, Yahoo, Activerse and other companies offer free software that allows any two people connected to the Internet to exchange messages in real time. The Activerse product also enables group conversations. Full disclosure: I write a column and do a weekly chat on AOL, but the company has no influence on what I write in this column.

AOL has long offered its members the ability to send one another instant messages, but it recently extended the service to anyone on the Internet, even if they're not members of AOL. To take advantage of the service, you and your co-workers simply point your Web browser to http://www.aol.com/aim/ and download a small file to run on your Windows 95, Windows 3.1 or Macintosh system. Get each person in the group to come up with a unique screen name to share with the others and simply enter that name into the program's "buddy list." AOL members can use their existing screen name.

The software can be configured to run automatically whenever you are online and to display the screen name of each of your "buddies" who are also online. Then, if you have a message you want to send to someone on your list, you simply select the screen name, type the message and click on Send. The message is displayed instantly, and the recipient hears a sound, signifying that a message is waiting.

Yahoo has an almost identical service that you can download at http://pager.yahoo.com/. The main difference between the AOL and Yahoo services is that the AOL program also works with people who are signed on to AOL and the Internet.

Historically, one-to-one instant messages and many-to-many chats have primarily been for personal use, but they can also be put to good business use. As I mentioned, I write a column for AOL and frequently need to contact my editors and others at the company thousands of miles from where I work. Because AOL employees are usually online during the business day, I can reach them almost any time I want. I can think of several times when I couldn't reach an employee by phone but got an immediate response to my instant message. Unlike an incoming phone call, it's easy to respond to a message even when you're on the phone, in a meeting or engaged in another task.

Like any other form of communication, there are some etiquette (or should I say "Netiquette") issues to consider. I have friends who, knowing that I'm online all the time, occasionally interrupt me with questions, personal messages or just to chat. I love chatting with my friends, but when I'm working I don't usually have the time. I can turn the software off or block my name from coming up on their buddy lists, but when the issue comes up, I generally send back a quick note saying that I'm on the phone or otherwise occupied. By the same token, I try to respect the time and privacy of the people on my list.

AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Pager are limited to one-to-one communications, but there are services you can use if you need to chat with several people at once. Chat has its limitations, but it can be an effective way for a group to meet. Unlike a conference call, you can have a written transcript of what occurs and, within limits, it's possible to participate in a chat and still attend to phone calls and other business.

Ding, from Activerse (http://www.activerse.com/), is a messaging program that supports group and individual chats. Unlike the Yahoo and AOL products, Ding is a peer-to-peer program, which means that it establishes a direct connection between each user, so it isn't vulnerable to a system glitch if Activerse's server goes down. Activerse, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Dietsche, is focused on the business market.

One problem with many of these products is that there is no way to know if a person is signed on but away from his or her desk. Ding, however, is tied to your screen saver, so if there's been no activity for a while, the program displays a message to others that you're not available. Ding can also be used to exchange files or "hot links" to Web sites.

You can download a free trial version from the company's Web site. Individuals can continue to use it for free, but businesses are expected to pay $29.95 per user after a free 30-day trial period.

Talk City (http://www.talkcity.com) is one of several Internet chat areas, but, in addition to its scheduled public chats, the company lets users set up private chat areas. The Web site is supported by advertising, so everyone in your chat might have to see someone else's ad, but the service is free and easy to use. For $1,500 a quarter you get to control the advertising. Some companies use the service to provide support for customers or as a marketing tool.

Links to all companies mentioned, plus other collaboration tools, can be found at http://www.pcanswer.com/chat.htm

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at magid@latimes.com

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