As Alec Muffett points out in recent blog, there are the security implications when using external instant messaging (IM) providers. Of course, businesses wishing to protect their information (confidentiality) and their employees (privacy) might wish to provide their own internal IM servers, Sun Java System Instant Messaging is one example. Usefully the FAQ explains some of the problems with using external IM providers.

Having said that, in a world of outsourcing many companies would probably not want to provide their own IM infrastructure and might prefer to buy one in, security included. A business opportunity perhaps?

Back on-topic though, Alec bemoans the success of IM vs Internet Relay Chat (IRC). I see them having different functions and to a large extent IM provides one function and IRC another:

  • IM
    • Primary focus is person to person
    • Clients provide this focus with buddies, etc
    • Many very easy to use clients, passes the “grandmother test”
    • Sense of “being there” (eg presence and typing indication)
  • IRC
    • Primary focus is group chatting
    • Clients provide this focus with channels
    • Somewhat techie

I also think there’s a minimum number of people in a chat room to make it viable. We use them at work and unless there’s enough people in the room we never reach the tipping point where they become useful. You need a few people looking at the chat session at any one time to make it worth chatting. Viability numbers depend on workload, time zones etc but 10-20 seems to be the minimum. I don’t have time to watch a chat session all day.

IRC could be an alternative to IM but clients needs to provide ‘buddy’ and ‘presence’ indication to rival existing IM services. Another business opportunity?

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  1. IRC can also support person to person communication. Existing IRC servers support SSL-based encryption (and can easily be extended to support SSL authentication), a good <em>notify</em> list can act as a limited contacts database, a registration service for nicknames (to avoid speaking to the wrong person about the wrong topic), and nothing is missing from the IM stuff that has been the rage these days.

    Well, almost everything…

    – IRC has a few shortcomings that need to be addressed first, before it’s useful as a substitute for any IM. The DCC protocol for file transfers is notoriously prone to breaking when one of the two communication endpoints is behind NAT.

    – A notify list that can only hold the IRC nickname of someone, is far from a good enough substitute for a full blown contacts database. When someone writes <em>ContactServ</em> — a distributed contacts and address book service — that will be solved 🙂

    – The IRC servers I had worked with a few years back didn’t have good support (or any support, for that matter) for a database backend. This may sound like overkill for a network like EFnet, Undernet or even the much smaller GRnet, but it will definitely open up new horizons for IRC-based messaging, moving a lot of the organization of the IRC related information out of the C source of the IRC servers and into the database.

    There’s definitely a lot of good stuff in the IRC server implementations today, but a lot of room for improvement too.

  2. IM can also support multi-user chat, and thus could be used as a complete replacement for IRC.
    But what’s being missed here is the obvious point that IRC is actually just another IM protocol. Sure, it had different focus historically, but it was really just one of the first widely-used, interoperable IM systems.

  3. Yes, well put – IRC is just another IM protocol. Though it wasn’t called that then.
    My somewhat less well put version of this is that IRC and IM are examples of a protocol allowing near-instantaneous transmission of messages to person(s) over a network which also provides an indication of their presence (unlike email for instance).
    Their focus, however, is different and in the grand scheme of these systems there is a cluster of them we can categorise as IM and another cluster of them more akin to IRC.
    I find it interesting that chat systems and network gaming, such as MUD, are closely related.


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