HipChat Instant Messaging for Small Business

by Joseph Moran

Quick, efficient online messaging makes everyone more productive. Hipchat’s hosted instant messaging service offers a low-cost, no-hassle IM client for small businesses.

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.)  

File Sharing Over Instant Message

HipChat lets members share files with each other, and beyond the customary browse-and-attach method, you can easily share a file by dragging it directly into your message box. The list of files shared within a group is always accessible via HipChat’s right pane. (Shared files are searchable along with chat history.)

The program displays certain types of image files, like JPEGs, inline within the message thread when shared. Otherwise, depending on the type of file, clicking on it in the list either opens it in a Web browser or in the appropriate host application on the recipient’s computer.  HipChat also parses each person’s message text for Web links and aggregates them in the right pane.

It’s important to be aware of how HipChat handles shared files, especially if you’re concerned about privacy. Any file shared over HipChat has a Web link associated with it. That link is revealed when the file opens in a browser or else is easily discernible by right-clicking an item in the shared file list before opening it.

Because these shared file links don’t require you to log into HipChat’s site for access (the files are stored on Amazon’s S3 service), a member of the HipChat group could allow unauthorized access to a file by passing its link to someone outside the group.

HipChat online messaging screen shot
HipChat highlights all your posts in blue, and lists shared files and links for easy access.
(Click for larger image)

Of course, this is no different than what happens if someone e-mails a file to an unauthorized party. But since HipChat is billed as a private IM service, it’s important to note that access to shared HipChat files isn’t strictly limited to members of the organization. It’s also worth mentioning that each file link contains a randomized 15-character code, so practically speaking, you wouldn’t be able to use one link to deduce the location of other shared files.

 Messaging Administration

The person who first sets up HipChat can bestow administrative status on other members of the group if desired.

Administrators can delete HipChat users, join, delete and access the chat history of private rooms, and disable the company-specific URL that allows new members to join the organization’s account (when enabled, this link is prominently displayed in everyone’s HipChat software, allowing existing members to easily bring new people into the fold).

Admins can also regenerate the link so the previous one is no longer valid and a new one is required to join the account.

HipChat Pricing

HipChat offers four pricing plans — Basic, Plus, Premium, and Ultimate — which differ primarily in how many users they support and how much storage they provide. The entry-level Basic plan is an attractive $9 per month for 12 people and 500 MB of storage, but it doesn’t offer private rooms and limits the chat history to a mere 30 days.

To get the private rooms and an unlimited chat history, you need the somewhat pricier $24 per month Plus level, which also bumps people and storage to 30 and 3 GB, respectively. There’s also a bare-bones free version for four people with a meager 25 MB of storage.

Premium supports 60 people and provides 5 GB of storage for $49 per month while the Ultimate plan covers 100 people with 20GB of storage for $99 per month.

The monthly fee is per account, not per user, and the company bills plans monthly, with no annual contract or discount. A full-feature version of HipChat is available for a 30-day trial, and it doesn’t obligate you provide billing information up front.

We’d prefer that HipChat’s file sharing be a bit more secure, but it’s not a showstopper as long as you don’t need to share files of a truly sensitive nature. That issue aside, if you want solid IM for your business without spending a lot of time or money, HipChat is well worth a look.

Price: $9 to $99 per month, based on number of people and amount of storage

Pros: Quick to setup and easy to use; supports Windows, Mac and Linux

Cons: Shared files aren’t protected by user login; no customized status options

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Feb 24th 2010
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