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Instant Messaging

Back in 1996, a small company named Mirabilis released a program that would allow users around the world to talk to each other in real-time over the Internet, for free.  The program was called ICQ, and it spawned an entirely new generation of online chatterboxes and late night conversations.  ICQ was loosely based on some old ideas started almost a decade earlier.  In 1988, Jarkko Oikarinen was the first to pioneer IRC, or Internet Relay Chat.  It allowed users to log into central serves and then join chat rooms or ’channels’.  IRC was open source, free for public use, and was a fantastic conduit for gamers and pornographers alike.

The thing that ICQ built on top of the whole IRC concept was to nix the ’channel’ concept and opt for user-built contact lists.  In this way, you would not randomly connect with people.  Instead, users were encouraged to get their friends to sign on so they could add each other to their lists.  Whenever a contact was online and available to chat, ICQ would notify the user.  Additional functionality like file transfers and webcam compatibility enhanced ICQ’s power.  As ICQ built on its success, the big three Internet monsters decided to jump on the scene.  Now, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, AOL’s AIM, and Yahoo’s Yahoo! IM clients have all eaten away at ICQ’s market share. 

You should note that none of the major IM services are interchangeable.  If you know people on one network, you won’t be able to contact others on another network.  There are some programs out there that can access several networks at once, and we’ll cover those too.


Short for AOL Instant Messenger, AIM is the most popular IM program in existence right now.  The reason?  How about the fact that AOL has 20 million subscribers, and for them, it’s the only way to access instant messaging?  To sweeten the deal, AOL recently allowed non-AOL subscribers to download the program to talk with AOL users.  The result has been a widespread acceptance of AIM as the leading IM provider in America.  It sports a unique array of features and great integration with AOL services (if you’re a subscriber).  Non-subscribers can still enjoy most of the functionality including online profiles that have evolved into something similar to blogs.

MSN .NET Messenger

In a distant second place, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger is integrated with its .NET service, meaning that hotmail.com users (and there’s lots of them!) and MSN subscribers have easy access to their services.  With their latest release version 6.2, many of Messenger’s worst problems have been eradicated.  I’ve found Messenger 6.2 to be a great IM program and though many scoff at using a Microsoft product, I think it’s the lesser of two evils as I’d rather not be associated with AOL-Time Warner!  If you have a hotmail account, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get this program: that’s because you already have a user account waiting to be activated!

Yahoo! Messenger

Yahoo!’s IM program has been gaining popularity since it is something of an underdog against giants like AOL and Microsoft.  If you look squarely at the specs, there are no weak points in Yahoo! Messenger’s offerings.  In fact, it’s popular because it offers both voice and webcam chats as a built-in feature. 

Mirabilis ICQ

Despite losing most of its market share over the years to its three main competitors, ICQ remains the longest standing instant messaging program in existence.  Now in its 8th year of development, ICQ has all of the features you’ve come to expect in an IM program.  You might have trouble finding people to talk to though, as I’ve noticed a slow migration away from ICQ’s network.

Trillian – Jack of All Trades!

There is a curious program called Trillian, that promises to solve all of your multi-network problems.  Let’s say you know some people on AIM, MSN, and Yahoo Messenger.  It’s a major hassle to open up all three services and handle so many different types of conversation.  Instead, you could download Trillian (for free), which sports access to all major IM networks.  You’ll need accounts for each network, of course, but once you’ve created them you won’t have to open up the individual programs ever again.  Though I haven’t used it before, I’ve seen people using it.  Trillian offers a generic chat experience minus many of the specialized network features of each network.  Of course, that’s the price to pay for having access to so many people in one convenient program!

Instant Messaging, Instantaneous Culture

Throughout my years I have seen all of the major Internet trends today emerge slowly from the murky depths.  While it’s a great way to waste time, it is essentially just a waste of time.  Don’t expect any profound conversations.  Expect to be drawn into many short and pointless conversations with friends as you all try to pass some time.  If you have to choose between sleep and IM, always choose sleep.  IM has spawned an entirely different kind of etiquette too.  You can expect to misinterpret common phrases and get into stupid arguments as a result.  ’Hiding’ from people is also a trend that has emerged.  Most programs allow you to selectively choose who can see your online presence.  Many personal feuds find their way onto IM services, and this is just a reflection of it.