Twitter, Friendfeed, Facebook, Basecamp, Google Docs, wikis... if I started naming hot social media and cloud-based collaboration tools, I could fill an entire article. Every day a new one pops up -- a new way for users to coordinate and collaborate, and at very low cost (often free). But with the constant flood of new tools, businesses often overlook a much older technology that can serve as the backbone of their communication and the foundation of their collaborative efforts, a technology that won't make anyone's list of "hot ways to collaborate in 2009."
I'm talking about Internet relay chat, or IRC.
If you have a distributed business where people who aren't under the same roof need to collaborate in real-time, the odds are good that you haven't yet taken a close look at IRC as a real option for productive collaboration and communication, but you should. We at Ars use IRC heavily, and we find that it's flexible and stable enough to meet our evolving needs quite well. Here are the top 6 reasons why IRC may be a good fit for your small or medium business:
1. It has been around forever
IRC has been with us in one form or another since the late 80's, so it's a very well-established, mature protocol. There just aren't a lot of kinks left to be worked out of this (very simple) protocol. And the experience doesn't change, so when your business learns to take advantage of it, nobody is going to push out an update that breaks a workflow or introduces some new, unwanted behavior.
2. There's a client for (almost) every platform
With glaring the exception of the Palm webOS, every computing platform worth mentioning--from smartphones to mainframes--has an IRC client, so workers can log in from anywhere. Seriously, every platform has an IRC client: Windows Mobile, the iPhone, Amiga, UNIX, Linux, Java, the older PalmOS... the list goes on and on and on. In this respect, IRC is the bacteria of the data communications ecosystem, in that you can find it everywhere there's a network.
So regardless of what hardware your team is using, they'll always be able to connect to IRC and use 100% of the technology's features and functionality, without any compatibility issues.
3. You can log it, and mine the logs
Because IRC is a text-based communications medium, it can be logged on both the client and the server side. There are any number of reasons why you might log IRC chats, like for data retention policy compliance or for future reference; but whatever your reason for needing complete communication logs, IRC can fit the bill.
4. Even though it's logged, people treat it like normal, open-air conversation
It has been our experience at Ars that, even though IRC conversation is logged, people treat it like normal, open-air conversation. This can be a double-edged sword, but the upside is that ideas and opinions can flow freely (the downside is that they can flow a bit too freely). This freedom makes it great for brainstorming sessions and for giving feedback.
5. The bot system is extremely flexible
IRC has a bot plug-in system, so that you can set up programs to "idle" in an IRC channel and perform useful functions. Most bots are used for some combination of notification and interactivity. For instance, a bot can grab the title of any URL that's pasted into the channel and put it in after the URL. Or, a bot can grab the contents of a calendar and update the channel when some alarm goes off or an event happens. Bots can notify you when code is finished compiling, or when a particular kind of story shows up in your RSS feed. In short, a bot's capabilities are limited only by your imagination--any kind of event or data that can be usefully captured and translated into a text-based form can be piped into an IRC channel via a bot.
It's also the case that the IRC protocol is dead simple, so if you want to build your own bot it's easy. You don't have to be an advanced developer to make the bot work for you.
6. It's free, and there are multiple free networks to chose from
Many IRC clients and servers are free and open-source. And if you don't want to run your own IRC server, there are many free networks (e.g., freenode) to chose from. You can set up your own channel on these servers, and grant or deny access to whoever you like. Users can create password-protected accounts that permit them access only to specific chat rooms, and administrators can carry out all of the normal community admin functions (kick, ban, join, etc.).
In sum, IRC is the lesser-known real-time equivalent of the email system -- it's a very old part of the Internet that's active, mature, reliable, flexible, extensible, and able to suit many different kinds of business purposes. So the next time you find yourself looking for a real-time collaboration solution that you can actually build on without worrying that some upstart cloud service provider is going to change it out from under you, give IRC a close look.