HipChat Instant Messaging for Small Business

By Joseph Moran
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Instant messaging was once considered more of a plaything for teens than a serious business tool, but these days it can represent a valid way to get real work done. It offers an immediacy of contact you just can’t get with e-mail or even by phone. And when it comes to communication between three or more, group chats via IM soundly beat those “reply to all” e-mail threads (or pulling people away from their desks for an interminable meeting). 

Allowing employees to conduct business communication via a public IM service like AOL Instant Messenger or Google Talk is a free and easy way to use take advantage of the technology, but it can also be problematic because not only is there the strong possibility of excessive non-business use, public IM networks can be a potential source of malware. On the other hand, setting up and maintaining a corporate instant messaging server requires a level of effort and cost that the typical small firm can’t justify.

HipChat aims to provide a happy medium with its business-focused hosted instant messaging service that supports up to 100 people. Although the communication features are limited to text — there’s no voice or video as with many IM services — HipChat is simple to set up, easy to use, and the price tag shouldn’t make a serious dent in the company coffers.

HipChat instant messaging screen shot
HipChat supports one-on-one chat as well as group chat via open or private rooms.
(Click for larger image)

Set Up Your Instant Messaging Account

Setting up a HipChat account takes all of five minutes. Once the account is established, you add people to your organization’s HipChat roster by passing out a customized URL they use to join the group and to download the HipChat software. You can also send out e-mail invitations containing the link directly via the HipChat Web site. An organization’s HipChat account can include outsiders such as clients, contractors or partners and not just company employees.

The HipChat software, which requires Adobe AIR, is available for Windows, Mac or Linux. (For now at least, there is no browser-based or mobile version.) The interface is very straightforward and simple to use, whether or not you have previous experience with another IM utility.

How to Use HipChat Instant Messenger

Upon signing into HipChat, you start out in your organization’s Lobby, which shows a list of all connected users and details the “rooms” that are currently hosting group discussions. HipChat’s user status indicator is fairly basic; it shows whether you’re online (green), away (amber) or offline, but it doesn’t let you customize your own status — by setting a Busy or Do Not Disturb option, for example. You also cannot qualify your online status with a comment like “on phone”, or “in a meeting” to head off inopportune contact. 

From the Lobby you can initiate one-on-one contact with specific individuals, join an existing room or create a new one of your own. Rooms can be open — available to all an organization’s members — or private, accessible by invitation only.

You can participate in multiple one-on-one or group conversations simultaneously, and large tabs that run along the top of the software make it easy to manage and switch between open conversations. 

In a busy chat room, you can direct comments to specific individuals by preceding your post with the Twitteresque “at” symbol (@) followed by the user’s name. (Typing “@” alone brings up a handy list of everyone in the room for you to choose from.) Provides a built-in spell checker and, if you’re into that sort of thing, a handful of emoticons as well.

To help you keep your bearings as you jump between chats or traverse a long thread, HipChat always highlights your posts in blue.  It also automatically records all conversations and allows you to search through chat history for a particular room or across all rooms (except private rooms that you weren’t invited to).

At the moment you can’t search the history of a one-on-one chat, but HipChat does retain the history between sessions so you can scroll up to view it as far back as it goes. (The ability to search one-on-one-chats is planned for a future release.)  

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This article was originally published on February 24, 2010
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