Instant messaging

from the March 2007 Actrix Online Informer
by Rob Zorn

Instant messaging, where people communicate by text online remains one of the most popular uses of the Internet. It's been around for a long time and now comes in a number of standalone flavours. It's popularity means it is also often built into other popular applications such as Skype and file-sharing programs as an extra feature.

Instant messaging has several advantages over e-mail, mainly because it occurs in real time. If your contacts are online, they receive your messages as soon as you send them, and can reply right away. But it is less intrusive in that it can be running in the background while you do other things on your PC, replying to or ignoring people at your leisure.

Instant messaging can be used to communicate with people in the next street or on the other side of the world, and because it is text-based, it remains reasonably quick and free of cost, even if you're on dialup. For many, instant messaging provides a sense of "connectedness" to friends and loved ones who are online at the same time, even if messages aren't always being exchanged.

Each of the various instant messaging programs works in pretty much the same way. As you use the program you add people to your contact list. Then, when you log in, you can view this list to see who is currently online and able to receive your typed messages. They can also see when you're online and you'll usually receive some type of alert when messages are sent through to you.

Communicating is as easy as clicking on one of your contacts. A panel opens and you can immediately start typing. Some programs allow you to send messages to contacts even if they aren't online. When they next log in, your message will be waiting for them.

Most programs also allow for some type of file transfer so that you can share things like photos; great for people who are introducing themselves for the first time. It can be a risky function, though, as it has been used to transmit viruses. You can refuse to accept sent files though, and you should do unless you are absolutely sure you can trust your contact.

Recently, voice and video functionality has also been added to most instant messaging programs as optional extras. For voice you'll need a microphone and headset which start at around $30 from Dick Smith Electronics. You can also purchase a web cam with a built in microphone for under $50. Voice and video use a lot more bandwidth, and may only be suitable for broadband users, though.

Instant messaging serves a wide variety of communication purposes besides just keeping in touch with friends or family. It is also commonly used as a social environment in and of itself. Kids will often use it to communicate after hours with the school friends they see every day, especially if they're not able to send text messages via cell phone.

For Internet daters, instant messaging is the logical next step after contact through a dating site, and before an actual meeting. Many seeking romance or other forms of intimate contact can also use some instant messaging programs to seek partners. Some programs allow the user to search and make contact with others online that they do not know.

Instant messaging is becoming more and more important in corporate environments as well. It is an effective way to stay in touch with your colleagues, especially if you’re working remotely. Many offices have an internal communications network set up, and some use off the shelf IM programs.

There are viruses and other forms of malware set up specifically to attack the most popular IM programs, however, so many businesses are wary of using programs that will connect them to the outside world. If you are going to use instant messaging, it pays to have a good firewall program such as Norton Internet Security or Zone Alarm installed, and to keep all your software up-to-date.

Windows Live Messenger

Windows Live Messenger comes standard as part of Windows XP, though if you have an older version of XP you may have an earlier incarnation known simply as Windows Messenger. Nowadays, if you start up Windows Messenger it will usually (and often) suggest you download the upgrade to Windows Live Messenger which has all the latest features such as games, video and phone functionality and an enhanced array of smileys and animations that you can send to your contacts. It's highly customisable and very easy to use, with built in guides to connecting your microphone and web cam if you want to use it to that extent. It also interacts with some other instant messaging programs such as Yahoo Messenger, though not all features, will work across differing networks.

With a couple of mouse clicks you can install a sharing folder for any selected contact. Any files you drop into that folder can be accessed by either of you, even if one of you is offline. This is a wonderful feature for work contacts, but as these files are stored externally, you would be advised not to put anything too sensitive in there.

Yahoo Messenger

Yahoo Messenger is very similar to Windows Live Messenger but it doesn't come as part of Windows XP. It has a number of features that may or may not justify downloading and using it instead of Windows Live for you. These include predefined chatrooms on topics such as music, hobbies, and interests. Public chatrooms you can set up yourself have been discontinued in part because of their abuse by sexual predators.

Yahoo Messenger also comes with Phone In and Phone Out; features that allow your PC to call or receive calls from landlines and mobiles. Rates start at US1 cent per minute, but you have to sign up specially for this service and load in some prepaid credit with your plastic.

Lastly Yahoo Messenger can be modified with a number of special plug-ins that offer greater functionality according to your interests. These include podcatchers, game finders, and even recipe search.

You can download Yahoo Messenger at http://messenger.yahoo.com/.

ICQ

Short for "I seek you" ICQ was first released way back in 1996. It is one of the pioneers of instant messaging, and was quite popular before it was eclipsed by Windows Messenger, though it is still preferred by many as "the original and the best". It offers a similar range of features to most other instant messaging programs such as text/video/audio chat and file transfers. It has a number of pre-defined chat groups you can join including Games and Dating, and also allows users to start and monitor their own groups.

If you're away from your own PC where ICQ is installed you can still use it to chat with friends and contacts via the web-based ICQ2Go that works from any computer. ICQ is also unique in that users are identified by numbers called UINs (short for either "universal internet number" or "user identification number"). These are distributed in sequential order, and these days new users are given a UIN of well over 300,000,000. Low numbers (five or six digits) have been auctioned on eBay by users who signed up in ICQ's early days.

The ICQ program is available for download at www.icq.com.