Information workers would “love to bring” Yahoo Messenger 9.0 beta into the office

The latest beta of Yahoo’s instant messaging application – Yahoo Messenger 9.0 – is squarely targeted at consumers, but at least one Canadian analyst believes many of its capabilities would interest small businesses as well.

“[Yahoo Messenger 9.0] has features that would benefit remote workers and many small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs),” says Carmi Levy, senior vice-president of consulting firm AR Communications Inc. in Toronto, Ont.

Specifically, he cited the latest version’s revamped instant messaging capability and new audio features.

The emphasis in Yahoo Messenger 9.0 beta – released last Thursday – is clearly on helping users build and enhance their social networks.

For instance, the product offers users new options for reconstructing networks of friends and contacts they have built elsewhere.

The “Import Contact” feature allows users to add to their Messenger contact lists, friends from address books in other sites such as Gmail, Orkut, Hotail, AOL or MySpace, noted Kayan Ng, product manager for communication product at Yahoo Canada.

She said version 9 also includes a special group of all people in the Yahoo address book, helping users to connect with contacts they may have stored elsewhere within Yahoo itself.

From a design perspective, improvements to the messaging client include: a streamlined interface, the return of online interactive games, an ability to receive automatic updates on any changes made to a contact’s avatar, larger picture spaces, bigger emoticons, and an option for an automatic sign in to a mobile phone when signing off from a PC.

The new beta’s status menu bar has been split in two – one section for the user to indicate their availability, and the other for inserting a custom message or a link the user wants to share.

An update feature also allows users to view what friends are doing on Messenger, similar to the updates that “friends” on Facebook receive.

A new contact list now has a detailed version that shows more contact information and a pared down version.

Beyond games, sleeker graphics and updated emoticons, Levy sees definite potential for Yahoo’s latest IM product to be used in business situations – especially by remote workers, employees at SMBs or freelance professionals.

He notes that the beta now allows users of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system to use voice in online chat rooms. Users can also engage in PC-to-PC voice over IP calls on the instant messaging (IM) client.

“This feature can definitely benefit remote workers and a number of SMBs,” said Levy.

For instance, he said, a teleworker or SMB employee could easily choose to use this feature to make free PC to PC calls, “or inexpensive PC to traditional phone line calls for rates as low as one cent a minute.”

Instant messaging, although still not widely used in the enterprise space, is gaining some adherents among business users as they realize that employees working on project can exchange information faster using IM than e-mail, the analyst says.

“Teams working on particular projects are increasingly realizing that IM offers them greater collaboration and real-time communication advantages.”

Yahoo Canada’s Ng said enhanced security is a key feature of this latest beta version of Yahoo’s IM product.

She noted that Yahoo launched Captcha on Messenger 9.0 beta in response to user complaints about the number of spam messages in the chat rooms.

Captcha is a “challenge-response” test used to determine if an e-mail message was generated by a computer, as in the case of spam messages released by zombies.

Usually Captcha involves asking a user to correctly decipher a series of distorted numbers or letters. So far computers are unable to do this task.

Such added security features of Messenger 9.0 may encourage potential business users to give Yahoo a second look, said Levy from AR Communications. “If people are using this at home, eventually they would want to bring it over to work.”

But he cautioned users who want to use applications – such as Messenger – at the office, to first clear it with the IT administrator.

Workplaces that consider using consumer-grade software must also investigate the plan’s viability and determine how it can best be deployed with minimum risk, the analyst added.

“This beta version proves that Yahoo is not yet ready to roll-up and die but is rather prepared to go head-to-head against Google Talk and MSN Messenger.”

Microsoft’s MSN Messenger and Google’s Google Talk both offer IM and voice capability directed at the consumer market.

However, Levy noted that Google Talk gains some enterprise features when bundled with Google Apps, while MSN Messenger Connect Service enables business-grade communication.

Another Canadian analyst, however, believes business users are better off staying away from all three products as they can compromise security.

“These products are strictly consumer-grade. The risks from virus attacks and content-related compliance issues are just too many,” said Tim Hickernell, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.

He said large businesses should consider enterprise-grade products such as Microsoft’s Office Communicator, which offer greater security features.

Small business or users with limited budgets, Hickernell said, should look at applications such as Open Fire from Jive Software. The product was developed from open source software, but offers corporate quality at SMB pricing, he said.

On its part Yahoo says Messenger 9.0 is intended for the consumer space.

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