Your Employees Love IM. Should You Worry?

Psssst. A word of warning: Your company is being invaded by a seemingly innocuous consumer technology that could compromise your deepest corporate secrets, render you vulnerable to lawsuits, and adversely affect employee productivity.

The name of this Trojan horse? Instant messaging. And it’s your employees who are bringing it inside the firewall. These text-based, consumer chat programs, a longtime fetish of teenagers and computer geeks, have gone mainstream and invaded corporate America in recent months. IM’s spread to the business scene poses a variety of problems, but also underscores its potential as a communications tool no less powerful than e-mail or the old-fashioned phone call.

The free, consumer programs — including market leaders AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), AOL-owned ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger — are simple Internet tools intended for keeping friends and family in touch with each other. Each instant-messaging program features some form of “buddy list,” a window showing which of your friends and colleagues are currently online. Click on a buddy’s name and you can “talk” with that person by typing on your keyboard. After you type each line and click Send, the message immediately appears on your correspondent’s screen (for more on how instant messaging works, see “Getting the (Instant) Message“). It is, without a doubt, a very effective way to stay in touch, ask quick questions, or gossip.

Chances are, your employees already use instant messaging of some form. According to research firm IDC, 5.5 million people now send instant messages at work. Further, Jupiter Media Metrix’s February study of 60,000 U.S. Internet users found that workers with AOL Instant Messenger spent an average of 6 hours and 20 minutes per month actively messaging while on the job. That’s significantly more than the four hours per month AIM users spent chatting at home. The Jupiter report does not indicate how much of that office time on AIM is used for business as opposed to personal matters, but it’s reasonable to guess that most folks at work use it to exchange some notes with friends and family. Typically, employees download and install the free tools from the Web without any supervision from their employers. While there are commercial IM programs designed for corporations, such as Lotus SameTime and Microsoft Exchange 2000 (more on those later), they have far fewer users, according to Jupiter.

So what’s the problem with free IM programs? Productivity, for starters. Why are your employees spending six hours a month on instant messaging at work? Are they goofing off and gossiping with their friends? Or are they using IM as a new means of business communication? It’s probably a bit of both, and ironically, it’s the latter of these possibilities that’s especially worrisome.

If your employees are conducting business via instant messages, they should know that the conversations are vulnerable to interception. That’s because the most popular chat tools lack any encryption technology to encode communications. Worse yet, IM programs can record your chats (ICQ saves messages on your PC by default; other programs don’t keep continuous logs, but do allow users to save conversations). If those recorded chats fall into the wrong hands, you could find your company secrets posted all over the Internet. In other words, consumer instant messaging can easily undercut all that money your company spends to ensure that corporate e-mail is secure. Sam Jain, CEO of Internet startup eFront, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., learned that lesson the hard way. In March, Jain’s ICQ logs, including sensitive contract negotiations, were stolen and published on the Web, embarrassing Jain and the company. eFront is still investigating the incident but suspects it was an inside job.

Litigators are also wise to the potential of IM logs. Just like e-mail, the logs can be subpoenaed in the event of litigation. “Attorneys are getting more savvy about instant messaging,” says Michael R. Overly, a partner at law firm Foley & Lardner. “If a deal blows up, or if an employee gets terminated, attorneys will ask for IM records, along with e-mail records, faxes, and other communications.” The bottom line: Anything you say in an IM chat may be used against you.

Perhaps less crucial, but still important to anyone interested in using consumer IM for business communication: It’s not reliable. Most IM tools depend on a central server to act as a switchboard, routing messages and keeping track of who’s online. As with any other Internet application, if that server goes off-line, so does your instant-messaging capability. Outages are a frequent occurrence. In March, for instance, AOL Instant Messenger went out twice for several hours. If the idea of relying on AOL, MSN, or Yahoo for a critical piece of your company’s communications infrastructure doesn’t make you nervous, I don’t know what will.

Still, using IM at the office does have significant advantages, so long as it is a planned part of your infrastructure. For brief, immediate communications, it beats a phone call or e-mail. At IBM, the company’s more than 300,000 employees have used SameTime, a corporate IM program from IBM’s Lotus subsidiary, for several years to conduct virtual meetings, augment telephone conversations, and communicate quickly with remote employees. “If we were to shut down instant messaging at IBM, I think we would have mutiny,” says John Patrick, VP for Internet technology at IBM. “I don’t know how to put a dollars-and-cents figure on it, but the impact on productivity has been profound.”

At application service provider Vobix, based in Louisville, Ky., MSN Messenger has turned into a critical communications tool for the company’s entire 75-person staff — in many cases supplanting phone conversations. Managers often use IM to ask their employees for additional information while in the middle of executive meetings, for instance. Think of it as a high-tech version of passing notes under the table. “We use IM religiously,” says Vobix spokesman Jon Reischel. “It plays a pretty big role in having us all keep in touch with each other.”

There is little question that IM will be a major part of corporate communications in the years ahead. But if you’re going to use it, heed the Defogger’s advice and steer clear of the kinds of free programs that your employees are probably already using. In addition to their lack of security and manageability, these tools generally cannot communicate with one another across platforms, thanks to protracted “IM wars” between AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Efforts to come up with a single IM standard, such as IMUnified and, have not made much headway so far.

Furthermore, AOL, MSN, and Yahoo are not pursuing the enterprise market for IM, and have no plans to support corporate users (though, in my opinion, this is a huge mistake). Microsoft, through its Hailstorm initiative, is working on building IM capabilities into future business products, but those applications are at least a year away.

So where should you turn? Your best bets are corporate tools like Lotus SameTime and Microsoft Exchange 2000. Both programs run on a company’s own servers and are relatively inexpensive to support; Exchange isn’t compatible with consumer IM programs, but SameTime works with AIM and also adds encryption capabilities. The software runs $27 and up per user and requires server setup and maintenance comparable to that of an e-mail system. For example, the 400 lawyers at Shaw Pittman, a law firm based in Washington, D.C., use SameTime at a total cost to the company of a few thousand dollars annually, says CIO Nicole Picciotta. (By the way, if chat is to be used strictly for customer support, check out the Web-based solutions offered by Kana, eGain, and others. See “Who Needs Online Customer Service? You Do,” July 2000.)

Whatever program you choose, the key to reaping gains like those of Shaw Pittman, IBM, and Vobix is to set guidelines for usage and train your troops well. This may take some time, says Picciotta, but the results are “absolutely worth the effort. There’s no question.”

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High Price of Search Technology

Having a search engine on your website is critical, because no matter how intuitive your site’s interface is, there will always be people who can’t find their way around. A search engine acts like a lifeline for these customers, connecting them to the pages they want before they drift away from your site forever.

The problem is, it’s difficult and expensive to get a search engine working properly. In a perfect world, customers could just type their questions into the search box and get coherent answers back. Too bad that ideal is so hard to achieve. The experience of one online powerhouse — stockbroker Charles Schwab — shows that while search technologies are getting better, implementation is still a bear.

This month Schwab’s website quietly debuted a new search engine that comes a lot closer to that ideal of functioning like a conversation partner. With the new engine, Schwab customers can type questions such as “Show me the P/E ratios and market caps for IBM, Cisco, and Microsoft” and receive a table showing the three companies’ price-earnings ratios and market values. You can even ask follow-up questions, such as “How about revenue?” and the site adds a revenue column to the table.

The slick new Schwab search tool (which works quite well for investment research as well as site navigation) is provided by iPhrase Technologies. The iPhrase software parses search questions and automatically builds responses, such as the dynamically generated table of P/E ratios in the above example. But technology alone isn’t the whole story.

Schwab senior vice president Robert Seidman says a lot of work went into building, optimizing, and testing the engine. That’s typical for most websites, which require that you spend a lot of time tuning their search engines, linking specific query words to corresponding webpages. Depending on the complexity of your site and the kinds of questions your customers ask, this can be a very laborious process.

Seidman says that iPhrase’s product needed less such tuning than other search engine technologies, but some was still required. What’s more, the company spent almost eight months deploying the software and then putting it through an extended beta test. Seidman says it was critically important to avoid bad search results, because they are so off-putting to customers.

All that for a feature that Seidman estimates will be used by at most 30 percent of Schwab’s customers. Still, he doesn’t underestimate the importance of a good site search engine. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, or if you know what you’re looking for but it doesn’t fit into the top levels of our [website’s] navigation, we need to give you a way to find that,” Seidman says.

Schwab won’t disclose how much it’s spending for the search software, but iPhrase says it typically charges in the six- to seven-figure range. Other vendors of “smart” search software, such as Autonomy, Google, and Ask Jeeves, also charge steep prices for their wares.

Unfortunately, Schwab’s case is typical. Search engines are expensive, time-consuming, and recalcitrant technologies, particularly if you want to get them working well. Even the best search engines will probably be used by only a minority of your site’s visitors. The problem is that you might lose those customers if they can’t find what they want on your site — so effective searching is essential for customer retention.

What’s a company to do? If you have Schwab-like deep pockets, then invest in a high-tech search tool and take the time to set it up right (or pay the vendor to do so). If you can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, buy a lower-end search tool and do some tuning so that you are sure to capture the 50 to 100 most common queries. No money or time at all? Put a free search engine on your site, make sure it’s prominently featured on your homepage, and hope for the best. For customers who are trying to find something on your site, a poorly configured search engine is better than nothing at all.

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Round Two Is Coming for the Net

Face it, the Internet we know today is slow and clunky. It’s getting better, but it’s still not the lightning-fast medium everyone wants, and the functionality is limited by the network pipelines. But all that could change with Internet2 — yes, that’s right, the Internet has a sequel.

A coalition of 170 universities, plus a few dozen corporations, is pooling its resources to build the Internet2 framework, which researchers are now using to develop a variety of futuristic, high-bandwidth applications. All told, spending on Internet2 by the universities and their corporate partners totals only about $80 million per year. Nowadays, that’s hardly enough money to get a medium-size network communications company off the ground, let alone build the broadband network infrastructure of tomorrow. But with lots of eager undergraduates and computer science grad students providing free or cheap labor, universities can do an awful lot of advanced development on relatively shoestring budgets.

Internet2 is built on a foundation of several networks capable of carrying data at dizzying speeds. For example, one of the Internet2 backbone networks, called Abilene, is composed of connections as fast as 2.5 gigabits per second. (For comparison, that’s equivalent to about 1,666 T-1 lines, a data rate 45,000 times faster than your 56-kbps modem.)

In addition to raw speed, Internet2 also includes support for Internet protocol version 6 (see last week’s Defogger column, “Ante Up: Why the Web Needs an Upgrade“), the ability to broadcast information efficiently to multiple recipients, and tools for guaranteeing that data is transferred at a certain quality of service (known as QoS to network engineers). That makes Internet2 an ideal test bed for broadband applications such as videoconferencing, real-time medical image transmission, and the like.

For example, research teams at Stanford University are using Internet2 to develop a variety of long-distance applications: a robotic helicopter that can be remotely controlled by spoken commands, a system for transmitting three-dimensional models of brain activity to remote locations, several videoconferencing courses involving students on multiple continents, and tools to allow surgeons to collaborate on operations happening thousands of miles away.

Other applications are in the works, some of them commercial. A startup company called Teleportec has developed a broadband conferencing system that produces the illusion of a three-dimensional hologram, so you can use the Net to project a ghostly image of yourself, Princess Leia-like, onto a specially equipped lectern. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, recently used the system to address a crowd in Dallas without ever leaving his office in Austin, and British prime minister Tony Blair plans to use it to appear virtually at political rallies this summer. Because Teleportec’s system (which costs $70,000) is data-intensive, requiring 384 to 768 kbps of bandwidth, the Texas governor’s address last month was transmitted over the Internet2 network.

Will Internet2 supersede the current Internet? Not really. The purpose of Internet2 is somewhat like that of the space program: to produce lots of indirect benefits by funding primary research. So rather than actually building the next version of the Internet, Internet2 researchers hope to develop technologies and techniques that can later be applied to the public network by private enterprise and the government. If companies like Teleportec take that ball and run with it, the results may be truly amazing.

For more information and news on Internet2, see the Web Guide and

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Q&A: John E. Marion II, Ph.D.

Q&A: John E. Marion II, Ph.D.
On Development Of Smart Probe For Breast Cancer Detection

D.F. Tweney, Special to SF GateTuesday, May 15, 2001

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women in the UnitedStates. Last year, more than 182,800 women were diagnosed with breast cancer, and40,800 women died of the disease. Currently, breast cancer diagnosis requiresbiopsies, a procedure in which small tissue samples from suspicious lumps areremoved — many of which turn out to be benign.

A San Jose medical technology startup called BioLuminate is working with LawrenceLivermore National Laboratory to develop a new device, called the Smart Probe,that may eliminate the need to perform many of those painful biopsies. The SmartProbe is about the size of the needle used for drawing blood and contains asophisticated sensing system. Inserted into the breast, the Smart Probe useslaser light and electrical impedance measurements to determine whether it isinside normal breast tissue, a benign lump or a cancer.We spoke with John Marion, special studies leader in the medical technologyprogram at Lawrence Livermore, about the development of the Smart Probe, which isexpected to enter human trials this summer.

What’s the current procedure for detecting breast cancer?

A mammogram by a physician or palpable lumps found by the person herself are thetypical first signs.

Then, at some clinics, they do a fine needle aspiration, which is literallysticking a needle into the suspicious area, drawing out some blood andintercellular fluid, and then a pathologist looks at that. If it’s stillsuspicious, they would go to a core biopsy.

For core biopsies, they have this fairly complicated, horrific-seeming machinethat shoots the biopsy needle into the suspicious location and takes a sampleout. The needle is about 2 or 3 millimeters wide. The reason why they shoot it isbecause the breast is jiggly and you want to be able to get it to the spotwithout having the breast move. But they do from like 10 different spots to makesure they get the right location, so they make a lot of holes in this woman’sbreast. It’s not a nice thing. Then it goes to the lab for analysis, which takesa few days. If it’s still suspicious after a biopsy, then people generally arescheduled for lumpectomies or a mastectomy.

Would you rather die of breast cancer? Of course not. But we’re trying to make aprocedure that is comparable in accuracy to a biopsy but much less invasive andcan be done in real time. Those are the two keys.

Why is the Smart Probe project looking at breast cancer, as opposed to some otherform of cancer?

Breast cancer is kind of unique, because with a mammogram, when it says there’ssomething suspicious, it often ends up not being cancer. So you’ve got this hugegroup of women that are scared to death because they think they have cancer, butthey don’t actually have it.

The idea behind Smart Probe is this: Is there some kind of test you can do forthis class of women who have just had a suspicious mammogram? It needs to bequick, might even be done in a doctor’s office, and has to be quite reliable insaying, hmm, we’re still worried, let’s go on to the next set of tests. Or, ifyou look OK, let’s go on and just do another mammogram in a year.

So how does the Smart Probe actually know it’s been inserted into normal tissueor cancerous tissue?

Well, the Smart Probe is a needle, it’s sharp, and it’s hollow, and in thathollow area, there is a solid stainless steel wire in the center that’s used foran electrical impedance measurement. That’s been shown to be a pretty reliableway of differentiating between denser and regular tissue. Tumorous tissue tendsto be denser.

Then there are a couple of optical fibers. We’re shining lasers down one of thefibers and receiving inputs back up the other. The probe that we’re building forthese upcoming trials will have five different colors of light that go down thisone fiber.

What you find is that optical scattering is a function of wavelength and of thetissue. So, for example, if you shine a blue light down and you get a lot oflight back, it’s fat; if you shine green light down and you get a lot of lightback, it’s cancer.

The whole thing fits into a so-called 20 gauge needle, which is about amillimeter across.

You expect human trials to begin this summer at the University of California atDavis. How will those tests be conducted?

We’re starting with a set of tests on about 100 women that are scheduled to havea lumpectomy or a mastectomy. So after they have been anaesthetized, we’ll do theSmart Probe procedure. Then they’ll have that tissue excised. There’s apathologist who will look at the tissue and make a clinical diagnosis, and thatwill be used for the care of the patient. And then there will be a team ofpathologists that will do a more comprehensive report. It’s that combination ofthe comprehensive pathology report with the data that we get from the Smart Probethat will hopefully lead to a learning process.

What happens once the human trials are complete?

Well, of course what’s going to happen is we guessed wrong, and that set ofmeasurements that we’re so thrilled with right now won’t quite work. I would loveto be surprised. But I’m almost certain that it’s one of these things where thefirst set doesn’t work perfectly.

On the other hand, I would really be shocked if we didn’t get some great datathat showed we can really see some very distinctive differences between normal,benign and cancerous tissues.

Crystal balls are dangerous, but I think if things went very well, this could beon the market in two and a half to three years.

How is the Smart Probe project funded?

The way Livermore works with a company like BioLuminate is that they give usmoney and we do the work. They have to pay the whole bill, we actually can’t doit another way. The agreement with BioLuminate is $1.4 million over 18 months.

How does Lawrence Livermore benefit from the arrangement with BioLuminate?

Oh, well, that’s pretty easy. There are a lot of things that we want to dorelated to sensing degradation in aging weapons and being able to assess what’sgoing on inside a bomb without having to take it apart. So all thisminiaturization, fiber optics, new chemical sensors, new optical sensors, thoseinevitably will have feedback into the weapons program.

Do you think this will have application to other kinds of cancer?

Absolutely. For instance, questionable findings on the cervix are very, verycommon. And there’s a good screening test for that — the Pap smear. It would bevery nice if there could just be an optical probe that they set against thequestionable tissue and could characterize it as cancerous or not, without havingto poke it, or grab it, or grab a big chunk of it.

But like any small company, the last thing you want to do is start trying to cureall cancers. So the focus is on breast cancer at this point.

Will this be an expensive procedure for patients once it’s commerciallyavailable?

As far as cost, the goals are to have this be consistent with other early tests for breast cancer. You’ve not only got to have something that works as well, but it has to be of comparable cost.

In terms of the way the climate works right now, patient discomfort is fairly fardown the list of reasons to change to a new procedure. If it costs more or isless effective, but it’s better for the patient — [shrugs]. It has to cost about thesame, be just as effective, and then we can realize these other benefits.

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Ante Up: Why the Web Needs an Upgrade

There are about 6 billion people on Earth. Currently, only a fraction are online — maybe half a billion of us. But that number is expanding rapidly — and will balloon even more quickly when Internet-enabled mobile phones become the Internet-access device of choice in many developing countries. By themselves, such phones are expected to add another 1 billion souls to the Internet’s population.

Great — the Internet has room for everyone, right? Not exactly. In fact, the Net is running out of addresses for all those people — not to mention their computers, phones, Net-connected cars, and (someday) their Internet-enabled toasters, refrigerators, thermostats, and lightbulbs. Making room for everyone will require a massive, worldwide investment of capital — and could require your company to replace all of its Internet equipment in the next few years.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell. The Internet’s basic communications are made possible by a system called IP (for Internet protocol), which requires every Net-connected computer or device to have a digital address, called an IP address. It’s this address that allows computers to find one another on the Net. (Most of the time, this happens under the hood — you type in a domain name, such as, and it’s automatically converted into an IP address, like

The current version of this protocol, IP version 4 (or IPv4), which has been used for about 20 years, has room for only about 4 billion addresses in all (or 2 to the 32nd power, for mathematically inclined readers). That might have seemed like plenty in 1981, but you can see how that number is starting to look a little small now, given the Net’s growth and the globe’s population.

Fortunately, the computer scientists who developed the Internet and preside over its basic standards foresaw the problem. About 10 years ago, they developed a new version of the Internet protocol, IP version 6. IPv6 has room for many, many more addresses — 2 to the 128th power, to be precise. (In nontechnical terms, that’s many billion, billion, billion times the number of addresses IPv4 supports.)

IPv6 also provides some additional features that will better accommodate broadband services like video and audio. For instance, it allows you to prioritize data — so that, for instance, you could give streaming video data a higher priority than e-mail or website traffic. That way, the video won’t get all herky-jerky when Internet traffic gets heavy. IPv6 also offers better support for mobile devices like cell phones and handheld computers, and it would likely allow data to be routed more efficiently from place to place, increasing the Internet’s overall speed.

So if IPv6 has been around for a decade, why aren’t we all using it right now? The problem is that switching from IPv4 to IPv6 requires an overhaul of the Internet’s entire infrastructure, and you can’t exactly take the Net off-line for a day to make the upgrade. IPv6 does include features that make it compatible with IPv4, to smooth the transition. But making the change would still be a little bit like converting a standard automobile with four wheels into an armored tank with caterpillar treads — while driving 60 miles per hour.

IPv6 will also be expensive. To use IPv6, you need routers — the Internet equivalent of traffic cops — capable of supporting it. With high-end routers costing $100,000 or more, no one is exactly rushing out to replace them, as long as the old ones are still working. Your company probably has several of these machines; your Internet service provider, or carrier, may have dozens or hundreds. (See eCompany Now’s e-Business Parts List for more on carriers and routers.) You also need operating systems and applications capable of supporting IPv6 — adding to the expense and hassle of upgrading.

Eventually, however, the move to IPv6 will be unavoidable. The explosion in Net-connected mobile phones alone will put pressure on telecoms to upgrade to IPv6 so they can give addresses to all of their customers. That will happen soonest in areas where mobile phone adoption is high, such as Asia (where several ISPs have already started upgrading to IPv6) and Europe (where the European Commission recently assigned a task force to investigate making the transition to IPv6).

In the United States, IPv6 won’t be very widespread for a while — as long as four or five years, according to some estimates. So don’t sweat it yet; you probably won’t even have to consider IPv6 in your technology budgets for several years.

But sooner or later, we’ll run out of addresses for all of our Internet devices. And when that happens, ISPs and businesses alike will be forced to make the upgrade, regardless of the expense.

Coming up: IPv6 is just the beginning. Next week the Defogger will take a look at Internet2, the next generation of the Internet.

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