About 5 years ago I was asked to go to Redmond to pick up some demos of Office 2000 from the CIO summit to bring back for the UK launch of Office. It was a hairy few days in a "cube" in Redmond with 2 laptops trying to build some demos to bring back - the most tricky of which was a very early demo of the instant messenger functionality we had built in to Exchange 2000. Back then it required some "magic" to make things work and I spent a day with two laptops configuring text files to allow a very simple two machine demo of IM (at least until some orange juice leapt on to one of the laptops and fried it....not sure how that happened). Anyway, I sped back to the UK and eventually did a demo at a London hotel of me chatting our MD of the time using webcams etc. It all hung together and if we demo'ed it now people would say "so what...everyone has IM".
The silent revolution of IM has been nothing short of astonishing. From the early days of a few people around the office using IM for idle banter I now have over 100 contacts on my IM list and regularly use it to run both my business and work life. My family are all on IM and my friends around the world are - talk about The World is Flat!! As VOIP technology gets integrated in to IM we're set for another revolution that must have the mobile operators concerned but also keenly looking at the opportunity - as IM has moved off the desktop and is now on mobile devices (not just Windows Mobile devices either). Within Microsoft it has quite simply changed the way we work - more and more of my business conversations are on IM. I can get a quick answer to pretty much anything, anytime, anywhere with the beauty of presence - this is perhaps the killer element of IM. It means I know who is online and who is offline - who is busy and who isn't busy. A customer at a recent event in Cambridge recently asked me how worthwhile this is given the potential for people to simply use IM for idle chatter. I showed him a live demo by asking having him ask me a question about a product that I didn't know the answer to. Within 20 seconds I had an answer - simply by looking down my IM contact list, seeing who was online and available who may know and securing a response. The penny dropped and the sale was done :) I guess I could have done this same experiment using a phone but the difference is I knew who was available and whether it was a good time for me to contact them. In a nutshell, this is the power of IM - almost instant response to anything I need to know. Even stuff I don't know, there are an increasing number of "bots" that act like a Turing machine in their quest to find an answer. Mark tells you more about Bots...
There are some considerations of course before blindly deploying an IM infrastructure. Does everyone need it, do you want (or perhaps legally need) an audit trail of messages, should you integrate Voice Over IP. These are all valid things to think about and the technology has moved on significantly since 2000 to address all of these issues.
Back to the revolution: in 2005 I would say around over 50% of my communication in work was via email but over the last 3 years that has dropped due to the introduction of IM. It's not a massive drop though as I think I use IM for very specific reasons - essentially to get time sensitive answers to information or to share information quickly with one (or more people). I also use IM occasionally for file transfers though I'm starting to use Folder Share more for that now. The final element is of course the social side of IM - it helps me keep in touch with my family better and helps me connect with my friends at work and further afield. Does that make me less productive - for the odd moment yes but balance that out against the positive of making me a happier employee with all the work benefits of IM and it's just a must have. I suspect you use it already but if not...go forth and IM!