Article for Website Compass magazine

Messages Now!
Understanding The Instant Messaging Craze

The computer slang “killer app” (translation: indispensable software program) has been bandied about with so much hyperbole that it has become cliché.

But when it comes to Internet software, it’s no exaggeration to call instant messaging programs that let allow instantaneous communication over the ‘net the first, true killer app of the decade.

Just how widespread has instant messaging become? More than 200 million users will send 2 trillion instant messages in 2004, according to the International Data Corp. Now that’s a popular program.

So what does an instant messaging (IM) program do? Increasingly, more and more. The most important and used feature is instant text communication between online users. But IM programs also include features that let you do the following:

  • create lists of friends with alerts when they come online
  • participate in chat and game rooms
  • exchange files
  • search for and meet people with similar interests
  • hold voice conversations (if you have speakers and a microphone)
  • access streaming content (such as stock tickers and news)
  • search a friend’s hard drive for files (with his or her permission, of course)

Some IM programs even let you send short messaging service (SMS) text messages from your computer to a SMS-enabled cellular phone or pager, although this technology is just catching on in North America.

The most-popular IM programs come free of charge from the Internet industry’s big dogs – AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft – and one smaller company, ICQ Inc.

All of these companies have fine IM products, but we recommend you check with your local Internet service provider first, as these folks may have IM offerings that are compatible across many IM platforms, giving you an advantage. Currently, the Big 4’s IM products are not compatible with each other, although AOL has available a beta version of its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) that works with ICQ.

If your local ISP doesn’t provide an IM product, try third-party software, either by downloading their freeware version or – for the serious IMer – shelling out for their deluxe models.

You might want to consider these popular independent IM programs, all of which allow you to communicate with other users, regardless of their IM software:

• Odigo –
• Madster (formerly Aimster) –
• Trillian –
• Omni –
• Omnipod (primarily for businesses) –
• Fire (Mac OS X only) –

A word about security: It’s important to keep in mind that IM programs currently don’t yet have the security features of e-mail (although Omnipod says it has overcome this drawback). Therefore, don’t send information over IM that you don’t want to fall into the hands of others. Also remember that any profiles you create can be accessed by other IM users, friendly or not. Like any other online activity, it’s important to use common sense.

Armed with this knowledge, head out into the IM world. After all, to use another cliché, 200 million users can’t be wrong.