individuals and information, Russo said, which can be helpful in emergency situations the state may face.

"Another benefit is the ability to simulate a verbal conversation more accurately than even e-mail," he said. "This is particularly true in situations where short messages are exchanged between recipients. In addition, the SMS [short message service] blast -- text message to a cell phone -- capabilities are important for contacting staff in the event of a security incident."

Where there are benefits to instant messaging, there are also drawbacks. In Florida's case, the two main drawbacks are that enhanced user training may be needed to achieve a higher ROI, and implementations of instant messaging software tend to increase system administrators' workloads.

On the Alert

Federal agencies are also taking advantage of certain aspects of instant messaging programs.

After about a week of implementation time in October 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Administration for Children and Families was up and running with WiredRed's e/pop Alert software.

"[It's] a crippled version of their standard enterprise instant messaging program," said the administration's IT Specialist Kevin Fine.

Implementation was easy and costs were minimal -- about $5 per user, or $9,000 for the agency's 1,800 employees, Fine said. Thirty licenses of the full-blown product, which gives chat functionality, were also purchased because the chat feature allows certain administrators to send alerts to the entire agency.

"The Alert product is one-way -- [recipients] can actually respond to the message, but they can't originate anything," he said. "They don't even know they have it, because it's hidden in the background on each of our machines. They have no idea it's even running."

E/pop Alert was installed through the network so the IT department didn't have to visit every machine. In addition, Fine said it was set up so that if it installs on a machine and the user currently logged in has never used it before, it automatically creates an account.

"We didn't have to do any account creation. The product had an installation builder, so we just ran it and it installed itself," he said.

For chatting with co-workers, Fine said employees use Yahoo or AOL's instant messenger programs, and e/pop Alert gives the Administration for Children and Families what it needs.

"We bought it for emergency-type messages," he said. "With it, we can instantly broadcast a message to all our PCs. Think of it as an electronic PA system."

Thus far, it's been used for fire drills to blast an alert message to users' PCs.

"Last time we did it, we actually indicated it was a drill," Fine said. "We also included a map to our assembly area. The product plays a sound, and the messages are rich text -- they can include graphics [and] colors."

E/pop Alert can also prevent the alert messages from being turned off -- during the first fire drill, some users continued working rather than following the alert's instructions, Fine said, and the next drill will lock all users out of their computers by keeping the message on the screen for a specific amount of time.

"We can set it to time out after 'x' amount of minutes, so when users return to their computers, the alert is gone."

Messages can be sent to specific people or groups of people based on the administration's active directory, but the one downfall Fine noted was that blasts couldn't be sent based on user location.

"We don't know on what floors people are, but that's a limitation of our structure, not a limitation of the program," he said.

The Administration for Children and Families occupies a leased building that lacks a PA system, so Fine expects the e/pop Alert program will be used to send informational messages as well.

"A neighboring building had a security scare," he said. "We can see that building from our windows and can hear their PA system. They had a bomb scare on one side of the building, so they were telling people to move away from that part of the building.

"We didn't have the product at that time," he said. "But if we had, we could have sent a message that would have popped up on [our employees'] screens and said, 'Don't worry about this. We're in contact with them. We know what's going on.'"

Jessica Jones  |  Managing Editor