Before the Internet became popular, a lot of people were already online. The major online services, such as America Online (AOL), Prodigy and CompuServe, were the main way that ordinary people could connect and communicate with each other online. Online services provide the actual interface that you use when you’re connected to the service, which creates a targeted experience for users. In the early 1990s, people began to spend more and more time on the Internet. Creative software developers designed chat-room software and set up chat rooms on Web servers. In a chat room, a group of people can type in messages that are seen by everyone in the “room.” Instant messages are basically a chat room for just two people. Instant messaging really exploded on the Internet scene in November 1996. That’s when Mirabilis introduced ICQ, a free instant-messaging utility that anyone could use. ICQ, shorthand for “I seek you,” uses a software application, called a client that resides on your computer. The client communicates with an ICQ server whenever you are online and the client is running. In 1997, AOL, considered the pioneer of the online community, gave its users the ability to talk in real time with each other through chat rooms and instant messages. In June 1998, AOL acquired Mirabilis and ICQ. Instant Messaging Providers Not long after AOL bought ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) became the IM leader. In the past few years, though, a number of services have cut into AIM’s audience. Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger) and Yahoo! Messenger, in particular, have become widely used around the globe. Google recently introduced its IM system, Google Talk. Proprietary multiprotocol applications like Trillian and Pidgin, which allow users to IM on several services at once, are also rapidly gaining in popularity.

   The major IM utilities use a proprietary protocol that is not understood by other instant-messaging services, so users of one service are usually blocked from contacting members of another. For an example, MSN and Yahoo! protocols were different, so chatting between MSN clients and Yahoo! Clients were impossible till the year 2001 when AOL took the lead of unifying the protocols. Also, Microsoft and Yahoo! joined forces in 2006 to allow their users to communicate with each other on one service. Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger subscribers can communicate with each other on one service. ‑­ It is important to note that instant messaging is not considered a secure way to communicate. Messages and connection information are maintained on servers controlled by the provider of your IM utility. Most utilities do provide a certain level of encryption, but they are not so secure that you should send any confidential information through the system. There have been reported cases of IM user logs being captured and used by nefarious sorts, and hackers have been known to instant-message virus-infected files. Voice over Internet Protocol is thought to be more vulnerable to infiltration than text-based instant-messaging.

New Instant Messaging Innovations

IM capabilities have greatly expanded in recent years. Most services offer file-sharing, and AOL, Yahoo!, Google and MSN have integrated IM service with e-mail service, so users can receive e-mail notifications while instant messaging. Many providers also allow users to IM and file-share from their cell phones and mobile devices, allowing access to their services any place, any time. A Google Talk user can archive IM conversations and also drag files and folders directly onto the chat window, with photos showing up instantly in their friend’s chat window. Windows Live Messenger allows instant-messaging between Xbox 360 gamers. Personalization capabilities have exploded, with IMers able to customize personal icons, screen interfaces and greetings. Most IM programs, including Windows Live Messenger and Google Talk, allow users to talk just as you would over a telephone, and some offer video-chat capabilities. Several free utilities combine various services. Trillian provides a centralized location for AIM, ICQ, Windows Live, Yahoo! Messenger and IRC contacts. All contacts are shown in the same window, with different-colored circles representing each service.

Users of Pidgin can IM, transfer files and share photos with contacts in AIM, ICQ, IRC, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger. Its “Buddy Pounce” feature sends notifications when selected contacts change their online status or send IMs. Universal IM providers Meebo and eBuddy are Web-based, meaning they don’t require a software download. eBuddy also offers a version of its service for cell phones. Friends IMing on Qnext, which works with all the major IM providers, can listen to each other’s music files without having to download them.

           The future of instant messaging is very bright. All of the utilities described in this article continue to be updated by their owners, and IM providers continue to collaborate on allowing more interfaces between users of their services. Business users can now have virtual conferences and collaborate on projects very easily. If you have not tried IM, you’re missing out on a whole new world of communication…




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