Categories: Workplace

Chat around the (open) fire

The client where I am currently working does not provide instant messaging (IM). That is a pity, because IM is a great way to collaborate with fellow workers. While many companies fear that providing their employees with this ability will waste endless working hours and grind production to a halt, being able to do so is definitely a productivity enhancer, at least in some departments.

Why do I say it enhances productivity? With IM, employees spend more time at their desks, so they will be available through the traditional channels of email and telephone when someone is looking for them, and they will receive other work-related notifications right away. Otherwise, it is very tempting to spend time away from one’s desk with colleagues, and even work-related discussion digress quickly (as I’m sure we all know).

In addition, using IM to discuss work beats writing endless streams of emails, where there are big time delays between responses. Also, most IM solutions allow you to exchange files, resulting in a less cluttered mailbox, which is a big win, because sorting through mail can be very time-consuming. Finally, another advantage offered by most solutions is the ability to see someone’s presence at their computer, which is often very helpful to know.

With these things in mind, I today tried out OpenFire, provided by Jive Software from their Ignite Realtime website. OpenFire is an implementation of XMPP (a.k.a. Jabber), which stands for EXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, an open specification which is now becoming an Internet Standard. Like many companies these days, the software is provided under a dual license, meaning that if you want support, you pay for it, and there are additional features in the enterprise version.

From the website you can also download an IM client called Spark. The server installation requires minimal effort. In the simplest case, a zip file can be extracted, and a Windows service installed and started by issuing two commands at the prompt. Then it’s merely a matter of following wizard prompts through a web interface to get it up and running. Although you can use HSQLDB as the database (requiring zero configuration), I opted for a MySQL database for better performance.

After that, I tried it with a few colleagues, by getting them to install Spark and adding them as contacts. All of us had worked together for a different employer before, where we had MSN Messenger, so we are used to the benefits of IM. The feedback was quite positive. We even managed to exchange work-related information that sped up some of our work. Although it works superbly, there were two things that I didn’t find so great about the software:

1) Adding someone as a contact requires the requester to accept the respondent’s acceptance. Whether this is a requirement of XMPP or a Spark feature I don’t know, but it’s annoying, and if the requester closes the acceptance dialog, it’s not clear how to resume the process, resulting in the contact displaying as Pending, and the only way I’ve found around that is to delete the contact and try again.

2) The second thing that’s not so great, but which I think is a feature of Spark, is the way to involve multiple participants in a group chat, or conference. The dialog for adding or inviting contacts is not very user-friendly, but I’m sure this is something that will be improved in future releases.

All in all, I’m very impressed with the solution. Apart from looking very sleek both on the client and server side (eye-candy is always a big drawcard for me), it seems there are numerous features which I have not yet had the time to explore. OpenFire offers a very easy-to-use web interface which makes managing the server a breeze. One very nice feature I saw on installation is that you can set up your server to use LDAP authentication, which is excellent if users authenticate on the network this way (e.g. Active Directory in a Windows environment) as they can use their network signons to use the chat server.

Being able to chat with colleagues and knowing whether they’re at their computers is great; you feel much more in touch with them. It will be interesting to see how this solution enhances our work experience over the next few days.

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