There is little doubt that instant messaging has become a tool in many employees' arsenal, with one estimate saying it's used in some manner by 85% of all businesses
. To some extent, though, employees and their employers are still trying to figure out the best way to integrate IM in the workplace
. There are several companies selling enterprise-focused IM systems, but for the most part, corporate IM use still relies on the same consumer-focused services used by teenagers and web surfers everywhere. This would seem to indicate that there's still a lot of potential in the market for IM services with features geared towards the corporate environment, whether they're enhanced security or compliance features, or different communications functions. To that end, Microsoft has announced that it's buying Parlano
, which makes enterprise group chat software, and says it will integrate it into its Office Communications Server and Office Communicator. There's little doubt that there's room for a lot of features to be added for enterprise users, but the big question -- particularly for SMEs -- is whether they're worth paying for. One of the key factors in helping IM spread through the enterprise is the fact that there's a wide range of providers offering "good enough" solutions for free. Bundling the functionality in with other software, as Microsoft plans to do, is one way to try and compete with this, and reflect's Microsoft's strategic view that the emerging software as a service model in the enterprise market is bunk
. Of course, the company says that because it's the complete antithesis of its own strategy, requiring huge amounts of installed software with expensive licenses. But with the growth in low-cost, or even free office software
, the outlook for most paid IM solutions looks pretty cloudy. While enterprises might see the benefit in paying for software like Microsoft Office over less fully-featured free solutions, the idea that IM isn't so mission-critical (despite its widespread use) will help ensure the ongoing popularity of free IM systems.