For many years, instant messaging (IM) has been a wildly popular communications tool for home users, whether it's Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) AOL division's popular AIM service or another version. Employees are now taking this tool to work as a way to increase communication efficiency and as a replacement for the watercooler. Some companies try to squelch IM use, some tolerate it, and others embrace it. Either way, it translates to corporate IT spending on the technology.

Companies that view IM as a virus spend money on tools to eradicate it and monitor systems for its use. Many companies ignore the use of IM, and gamble it won't be a problem for them. But since recent court battles have been lost over a company's failure to record employees' communication, many companies have purchased software to record any and all forms of communication going through their networks, including IM.

Companies that are embracing IM technology are quickly forcing the convergence of text, audio, and video -- and that's opening up new business opportunities. Instant messaging, email, voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), and videoconferencing are all blurring together, and in many cases, IM is the hub at the center of these communication spokes. IM has become the desktop equivalent of the cell phone, where there has been a similar integration.

This convergence is moving into every aspect of communications and computing, with products like Skype that turn IM into a telephone, and IBM's (NYSE:IBM) latest version of NotesBuddy in beta. NotesBuddy allows users to store IMs in folders along with emails and to discern whether the sender of an email is available on IM for a quick chat.

To date there haven't been many opportunities for investors to catch this wave, but that may be changing. Looking at many small companies catering to this market, several of them list numerous venture capital investors, so be on the lookout for initial public offering opportunities in the near future.

The big dogs want a piece of the IM action, too. Last year, Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) partnered with WebEx (NASDAQ:WEBX), combining Yahoo!'s Business Messenger service with WebEx's videoconferencing and collaboration software, enabling business users to fire up videoconferencing and collaboration tools from the IM software. Yahoo! assesses monthly fees and per-minute charges for the service. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) also recently got on board with its Live Communications Server. But the corporate IM leader by a long shot remains IBM with its integration of Lotus Notes email, its NotesBuddy IM tool, and Web conferencing.

Right now, there are still a lot of divergent and incompatible technologies and few places to park your money, but the market is growing rapidly and is apt to present some interesting investment opportunities in the future.

David Gardner recommended Time Warner for Motley Fool Stock Advisor in the Aug. 2002 issue. Check it out, risk-free, for six months.

Motley Fool contributor Mark Mahorney doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned.