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I'm Ready! Chat!

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Suppose you discovered a powerful communications tool for your business that was free, easy to use, and extremely adaptable to varying conditions. With it, you could dispense tech support and service in real-time, help clients and patrons without tying up phone lines or using precious toll-free time, conference with business associates anywhere in the world, and have immediate transcripts of every session. Sound worthwhile? Then you need to explore this handy technology that's almost 20 years old--in IT terms, fit for a museum, usually.

The tool exists. It's called Internet Relay Chat.

A very bright guy named Jarkko "WiZ" Oikarinen wrote the first IRC client and server at the University of Oulu, Finland, where he was working at the Department of Information Processing Science. This was in the summer of 1988, when Ronald Reagan was President and the World Wide Web was still gestating at CERN.

IRC was tested at two universities in Finland. Use spread through university systems at Denver and Oregon State, eventually debuting across the Internet in November 1988. In the typical anarchical fashion of the early Internet, IRC grew, spread, and mutated as new clients and new variants of the original software were adapted by users around the world.

Today, IRC has become a generic term for a method of conversing with other Internet users in real-time, using a chat software program or a Java plug-in that operates in an open Web browser. There are two basic forms of the chat experience: "channels" and "rooms." The only real difference is in how these are used. Channels tend to be open-ended. Anyone with chat software can enter and converse. Rooms tend to be closed areas. Users usually know their destination in advance in order to enter a room.

IRC and the chats descended from it have become the world's water cooler, a place where people gather to talk about anything and everything. Enormous amounts of bandwidth are consumed by chat about everything from soap operas to politics, sports, pop culture, and, of course, sex. But chat rooms have gained an unsavory reputation. Problems with predators, pornographers, and spam have led to some service providers dropping chat altogether. (Microsoft shut down its chat service in September 2003.)

Despite this, business use of chat has increased. So far, the most common business use of IRC is on help desks. Many software companies and ISPs now offer chat room help as an alternative to phone and email service. Chat has many efficiencies to offer. It occurs in real-time, so the client and service provider can reach a solution through immediate interaction, without all the to-ing and fro-ing of email or the annoying holds and line tie-ups of 800-number service. I've turned to chat help more than once, and it afforded the best service I've ever received online.

A less obvious benefit of chat service help is that it provides an immediate, accurate transcript of the session, which patron and provider can refer to after the fact.

It is also common technique in ordinary chat rooms to provide Private Messaging (PM). This is chat narrowed to just two people, which would allow conferring without informing everyone in the room.

What other professional uses can be found for IRC? Keeping in mind chat's innate strengths--real-time transactions, immediate feedback, written transcripts--the following possibilities come to mind:

  • Conferencing--I have participated in editorial meetings via a chat room. Participants were in California, Oregon, and North Carolina. Everyone was able to present ideas and ask questions effectively, and complete minutes of the meeting were available as soon as it ended. Sales meetings could easily be handled in a chat room as well. Let your sales staff around the country (or world) know what new products and prices are coming out.
  • Presentations--Imagine your company is rolling out a new product. It's a big deal to you and a small circle of prospective buyers, but it's not worth the cost of high-dollar general advertising. What to do? Invite prospective buyers to a chat presentation. Present the new product, take questions, and quote prices and delivery dates right to the people who need to know. IRC is text-based, but URLs, emails with picture files, and detailed specs can be dispatched via email to anyone in the room who requests them.
  • Troubleshooting--As opposed to patron help chat, troubleshooting chat would be designed for company technicians and reps down the street or around the world. Set up a chat room and invite techs and reps to apprise you of the problems they're seeing. Maybe the answer will come from another person in the room. Critical mass can be a powerful solution tool.
  • Alerts--Security is a major issue today. Web sites and email are targeted by hackers and criminals daily. If a new problem is detected--say a serious new virus, defective parts, or counterfeiting--an alert can be swiftly sent to vital personnel. Because chat is immediate, instant feedback can be generated. And because chat is not email, it may present a secure alternative if email has been compromised. Furthermore, in an urgent situation, you won't risk the possibility that someone won't see your email for awhile.
  • Auctions--Real-time bidding would make a chat mode auction more like the live experience. Most Internet auctions last for days to allow bidders to find the item, make bids, etc. Auctions staged in an IRC channel would be faster, more efficient, and cleaner--everything can be recorded. PMing is ideal for this application of IRC.

These are just a few ideas. Any situation that can benefit from real-time conversation can benefit from IRC.

How is IRC set up? Users run a client program that connects to an IRC server network. All servers are interconnected, and messages flow from user to user over the IRC network. One server can be connected to hundreds of clients. Many IRC networks exist. The largest ones can serve about 20,000 users at any given moment. Lesser ones may be less populated but often offer more stability and convenience. It's best to try to connect to a nearby server. Local servers usually work faster and give you better access. Shop around.

How do you get on IRC? First, you have to have an IRC client installed. If you don't, you should ask your system admin to install a client on your PC or local area network. If you have a standalone PC with Internet access, you have to obtain and install a client yourself. You can get an IRC client by anonymous FTP. Again, it's best to use the one closest to you. If you are not familiar with anonymous FTP, ask your network provider for assistance.

IRC clients can be found at these Web sites, among others:

Bersirc
BitchX (for UNIX)
Colloquy (for Mac OS X)
Oxide
mIRC
XChat

IRC sessions can be affected by firewalls and proxies. mIRC works with firewalls at present, but new users should check for compatibility first.

So there you have it--an easy to use, flexible, and capable method of communication many businesses could benefit from using. Don't let the reputation of chat deter you. Once you try it, you might wonder how you ever did without it!

Paul Thompson is a freelance writer and novelist living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.



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