How It Works: Instant Messaging

But the immediacy of IM makes it suitable for corporate communication as well. In a poll of 50 Fortune 500 companies, Forrester Research found that 46 percent expect to use IM services for business by 2002.

You can choose from any of a number of IM services, all of which are free. All you have to do is download the software. AOL Instant Messenger leads the pack in users, with more than 90 million signed up, including AOL subscribers and Internet-based AIM users. Combine AIM with ICQ--also owned by AOL but incompatible with AIM--and AOL easily dominates the market. Microsoft offers its own IM service, MSN Messenger, as do Web powerhouses such as Yahoo!. Numerous smaller players also exist.

Besides basic text messaging and chatting, some of the programs offer other features. ICQ and AIM let you transfer files and images with their latest software. AIM 4.0 and ICQ 2000 include voice messaging that lets you talk in real time, as you would on a telephone. Voice messaging is accomplished using voice-over-IP, a telephony protocol that breaks your voice into digital packets to send over the Internet.

Running instant messaging software doesn't require heavy-duty hardware or a fast Internet connection. For instance, ICQ requires just a 66-MHz 486-DX2 PC with 8MB of RAM. And the small amount of information in a typical message means you can chat using a 56-kbps modem without perceptible delays. Of course, a faster computer and broadband Internet connection promotes quicker delivery.

Interoperability and Standards

Instant messaging's biggest problem remains its lack of standards. In the world of e-mail, you can send a message to anyone who has an e-mail account, regardless of which service or software they use. But you can't do that with instant messaging, because each service uses a proprietary protocol and network. If you're signed on with AIM, you can chat only with other AIM users.

That hasn't stopped companies from trying to push interoperability. In 1999, Microsoft jiggered its MSN Messenger software to allow access to AIM users. AOL accused Microsoft of hacking into its system. Microsoft backed off several months later but continues to push for interoperability by supporting an industry organization called the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol Working Group.

The IMPPWG advocates an open standard for instant messaging that will provide interoperability between IM services. Microsoft and Lotus have signed on; AOL has not. AOL's strategy is to license its technology to other vendors. For example, Earthlink and Lycos both offer AIM software to their clients.

AOL's resistance to standards has prompted rivals to file a complaint with the FCC. CMGI, the company behind ICast and Tribal Voice (both produce software with IM ability), asked federal regulators to force AOL to open its AIM network before approving AOL's upcoming merger with Time Warner.

A few companies have decided to go ahead and make interoperability a reality without AOL's help. Jabber, Everybuddy and Bantu all offer software that integrate different IM services into one program. You still need to have an account with each service, but you can access them all from one application.

Since interoperability standards won't be implemented overnight, you may want to try Jabber or similar programs in the meantime if you have to sign up with multiple services.

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Michael Gowan

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