I'll be with you in an instant

IM is the little app that we can't do without. Teenagers think it's a way to chat after school without parents listening in; office workers use it to avoid voicemail hell; and millions of other people use it to simply catch up, gossip, or check that their colleagues are online. Estimates vary, but it's a safe bet that around 400 million people are IM-equipped - and a growing number of them are IM-ing at work.

Don't have IM in your office yet? You might not have to wait long. Analyst group Jupiter Media Metrix predicts that by 2005, 46 per cent of online Australian workers will use IM for office communication. Even now, 16 per cent of workers use it, says Jupiter analyst Foad Faraghi, often without the permission of their IT managers.

It's easy to see why. IM has turned e-mail into the new snail mail. Why wait for a response from a colleague when IM lets you check if they're in? Need a quick answer? IM's response times are measured in seconds, not minutes or hours. Plus, as our e-mail boxes fill with spam, IM helps to bring a personal touch back to communicating online.

Is you IM illict?

Most instant messenging clients work in the same way: you create a buddy list of IM-connected colleagues, contacts or friends. When you want to chat, you click on your buddy's name (so long as they're shown as "online") and start typing. This instantaneous connection can be a boon in the office, but it has yet to win many friends among IT managers. They worry about the amount of time employees spend surfing the Net or e-mailing friends, and wonder if IM will simply lead to more costly time wasting. Plus, since IM cannot be monitored or archived like corporate e-mail, giving employees access to it raises the spectre of corporate liability. We've already seen cases where employees have been sacked for sending offensive or illegal e-mail; IM's uncontrollable nature could exacerbate this situation.

If IM's such a problem, who are all the business users of IM? Believe it or not, the US military has made IM a core part of its communications systems. The US Navy, for example, uses instant messaging - albeit a version from Lotus called SameTime that can be encrypted, archived and, like all good military communications, audited and controlled - for communication between its battlegroups.

The benefits of IM are also winning over some business managers originally concerned about the new tool. Companies with offices in various parts of the world, in particular, can take advantage of the instant communication in IM. There's only a short window, after all, when your London office is open at the same time as the one in Melbourne - but when it is, you want to make the most of it and get quick answers rather than losing hours or days waiting for an e-mail response.

IM could also make the lives of remote and teleworkers much easier: after all, it doesn't matter if you're in the next office or an hour's drive away if your can interact with co-workers in real time. If you work at home, however, you may need a broadband connection to sell this to the boss - IM is only good if you're online.

No interoperability in IM

Security problems aren't the only problem holding back IM. Imagine if Outlook users could only send e-mail to other Outlook users, shutting out people with Eudora or Lotus Notes? It would be chaos. Unfortunately, that's the reality for IM. With today's IM clients you can really only chat with others on the same system - and the companies behind IM seem keen to keep it that way. AOL, in particular, goes out of its way to block other companies connecting to its system, claiming that it needs to preserve the integrity of its IM system. The upcoming Apple iChat (appearing in the next version of OSX) is the first IM sanctioned to use AOL's system, but for everyone else, it's bad luck. And with AIM the world's most popular IM system (it leads Microsoft IM almost everywhere bar Australia), it seems that incompatibility is something we'll have to live with.

It wasn't always this way. In 2000, Microsoft, Yahoo and a host of other companies formed a coalition called IMUnified. Great things were expected, including an open IM standard, but it seems to have died a slow death. Don't bother visiting the organisation's site at www.imunified.org, as most of the information is at least two years old, and at the time of writing there were no updates on the progress of the project at the site. The Internet Engineering Taskforce (www.ietf.org) also has a working group dedicated to defining an open protocol so that independently developed IM applications can interoperate. The group's Web page is at www.imppwg.org.

Potential solutions are emerging in software like Trillian (www.trillian.cc) and Odigo (http://corp.odigo.com) that let you instant message members of different networks using a single interface. There's also an open source development called Jabber, which offers an open, XML-based protocol for instant messaging (www.jabber.org). Go to www.jabbercentral. com/clients if you're interested in downloading a Jabber client.

Trillian hit the headlines earlier this year when AOL, after blocking Trillian users from connecting to the network, sent them a tersely worded statement: "You have been disconnected from the AOL Instant Message Service for accessing the AOL network using unauthorized software. You can download a FREE, fully featured, and authorized client, here http://www.aol.com/aim/dow."

"This is nothing new, and this is not about interoperability," Kathy McKiernan, AOL spokesperson told PC World in February. "This is about a company releasing software that hacks into our system, endangering the security of that system and our users."

A week later, Trillian was again connecting to AIM, but the issues raised by the profusion of IM systems that don't allow their users to speak with those using other systems remains unsettled.

Morpheus your next IM?

When StreamCast Networks released the updated version of its Morpheus peer-to-peer file swapping software in June, it also issued a little taunt at AOL in the form of a chat service that is interoperable with AIM.

The new IM service, dubbed Morpheus Messenger, is powered by software company PalTalk.com and is being made available with the 1.9 version of Morpheus. But more than just sealing a collaborative deal with Morpheus, PalTalk hopes it can use the alliance to launch its software into the big leagues, against IM stalwarts like AIM and Microsoft's MSN Messenger.

After all, 90 million Internet users have downloaded previous versions of the Morpheus software, according to StreamCast, with an average of 29 million downloads per version.

Given Morpheus' track record, PalTalk said it expects some 1.75 million users to download the new version of Morpheus each week, giving them access to the company's IM service.

Although the Morpheus Messenger software is free, offering text messaging, audio chat and still image communications, the company has a "Plus" version of the software offering video conferencing capabilities. Morpheus Messenger Plus is priced at $US9.95 for three months or $US24.95 for a year.

PalTalk is also working to make its IM service compatible with MSN Messenger by the third quarter of this year, Lee said.

However, Jupiter Media Metrix research director Michael Gartenberg is not so optimistic, especially given that the company is pinning some of its hopes on the Morpheus alliance.

"StreamCast is going to have some very, very serious problems in the short term," said Gartenberg, who compared the P-to-P company's challenges with those faced by Napster. Gartenberg also predicted that the Internet giant would soon find a way to block the upstart.

Security problems

The other issue for IM users is security. How safe is IM really? In 2000, advisory group CERT noted several security problems in IM software, including software flaws and the potential for social engineering, Trojan horse attacks and the passing of sensitive information in the clear to untrusted networks. CERT also noted that "it may be difficult to strongly authenticate the identity of remote parties using only the information provided in most chat clients", and recommended that "strong authentication, if available, should be used to establish trusted communications".

These issues are just as problematic two years later. Microsoft, for example, released a patch in May for a buffer overflow in MSN Messenger that could permit a remote attacker to execute arbitrary code on the system with the privileges of the user. The patch was given critical status by Microsoft and you can learn more about the problem by reading Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-022 (www.microsoft.com/technet). Yahoo, meanwhile, released a patch the same month for a vulnerability in its IM client that also stemmed from a buffer overflow.

Some help to make IM more secure may be on the way. In May, AOL and VeriSign announced they would be rolling out a beta test of software from the two companies to encrypt messages using AOL's AIM instant messenger application.

The software, which is aimed at enterprises, will encrypt instant messages as they move between computers, said Marty Gordon, a spokesman with AOL. The companies will offer the software in response to demand from enterprises for more secure methods of instant communication, Gordon said. Changes needed to support the encryption will be made to AOL's servers, he said.

Choosing a client

With IM, your choice of software will often come down to the decisions made by your friends and colleagues; until different IMs can reliably interoperate, you should choose one that everyone you want to talk to uses. You may need to use more than one IM to talk to all your contacts. Also keep in mind that not all versions of the same IM app have the same features.

In the US, AOL's AIM is by far the leading IM application, but in Australia the situation appears to be very different. According to Media Metrix Jupiter, MSN Messenger is the most-used IM application, with a 48 per cent share of users, followed by ICQ (29 per cent) and then AIM (11 per cent).

Functionally speaking, most IMs are the same; where they differ is in the extras.

MSN Messenger

Microsoft's chat entry, Messenger, is easy to use - probably one of the reasons it has taken the lead in Australia, especially amongst the large Hotmail user base. It has all the necessary features to organise your buddy lists, see who's online and exchange files and pics. Other useful features include notification of new e-mail in your Hotmail account and typing notification - so you know when your contact is typing to avoid overlapping replies. http://messenger.ninemsn.com.au.

ICQ

Where other IM clients keep things simple, ICQ piles on the features. Sometimes this is a good thing - like powerful search facilities and privacy features (people can't add you to their contact list unless you grant them permission) - but at other times it can feel a little overwhelming. You can choose, however, between advanced and simple modes, and it's easy to add and subtract features as you go along (presumably as you become more comfortable with the software).www.icq.com.

AOL Instant Messenger

AIM is huge in the US, so if many of your contacts are American this could be a good choice. It's easy to search for people on the service and customise the privacy settings (disallow others from searching for you, for example). AIM also has options to format your instant messages (such as italics and colour text), and offers stock and news tickers.www.aol.com.au.

Yahoo! Messenger 5.0

As with MSN's Messenger, you can use the Yahoo client to see when you have e-mail in your free account, and it has typing notification. You can archive your chats (the default setting deletes them after 10 days) and changing settings is easy. Yahoo Messenger also has IMVironments - themed backgrounds for your messages - and you can configure different ones for different contacts.http://au.messenger.yahoo.com.

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Deanne McIntosh

PC World

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