Most people believe instant messaging is something kids use to chat online, yet this medium is also proving a useful communication tool in the business sphere. If you've shied away from this internet phenomenon, read on - you may want to give it another look!
As if you didn't already spend enough time blocking spam, battling pop-up ads and replying to every single e-mail message you receive, another Internet communication medium is competing for a chunk of your brain: instant messaging.
Although infamous for its use in chat rooms, instant messaging is a good way to stay in touch with wired friends, colleagues and customers. Better yet, IM is free.
As with most Internet tools, the trick to productive instant messaging is knowing how to use it and when not to use it. Here is an overview of available IM services and software, along with some commonsense advice on how to safeguard your privacy and security while you're using them.
It's a jungle out there
To get started in the world of instant messaging, you need a connection to the Internet, an account with one of the four major IM services, and IM client software. The big four are AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), ICQ (also owned by America Online and run on the same network as AIM), Microsoft's MSN Messenger (Windows XP users have Windows Messenger) and Yahoo Messenger.
All of the free services provide IM's basics: one-on-one (private) text chat, multiparty text chat and the ability to transfer files. In addition, AIM, Windows Messenger, ICQ Pro and Yahoo Messenger let you use a microphone and speakers or a headset attached to your computer to participate in telephone-like voice chats with similarly equipped IMers. Videoconferencing with a webcam is available to users of Windows Messenger (though not its poorer cousin, MSN Messenger), Yahoo Mes-senger, ICQ Lite 4.0 and AIM 5.5 (the latter two when used on the WinXP platform). ICQ, MSN Messenger, Win-dows Messenger and Yahoo Messenger let you send text to mobile phones on some networks both in Australia and overseas.
Each of the four IM services hosts its own topic-orientated, multiparty chat rooms, which are a colossal waste of time and computing resources. AIM offers chat rooms devoted to a range of topics, though each and every one of these unmoderated rooms is rife with the lowest form of online life: porn spam. Accordingly, don't let your kids anywhere near an AIM chat room.
In fact, in October 2003 Microsoft made the decision to close its ninemsn chat rooms in Australia due to the growing problem of spam and in order to better protect children from inappropriate com-munication online.
Each service's free client program is designed to give you maximum control over your online IM presence and experience, including the ability to decide who can and who can't send you messages, and whether you appear to be available for chatting. They also provide a list of your contacts, enable you to transfer files, and support advanced voice, video and mobile messaging. Nonetheless, the programs are far from perfect. AIM, ICQ and MSN Messenger all manage to cram banner ads into their compact interfaces - in ICQ's case, in both the main window and the message windows ( see screen shot). Yahoo Messenger skips the ads in basic IM screens but tacks them onto its chat rooms. The other drawback to using each service's native software is the clutter: to reach friends on different services, you must run multiple IM programs.
One result of hostile competition in the instant messaging market is that each IM service is incompatible with the others: you can't send an instant message to a Yahoo Messenger subscriber using AIM, for example, or vice versa. (The lone exception is ICQ, which allows you to connect to members of parent AOL's other service, AIM.) Wouldn't it be great if one program let you connect to all four IM systems?
One does - or rather, two do. Cerulean Studios' Trillian Basic is a free universal IM client that connects to all four systems, as well as to the non-commercial Internet Relay Chat network (visit the IRC Help Archive at www2.irchelp.org for extensive IRC primers and guides). Like the native IM clients, Trillian Basic displays your contacts and their online status in a compact interface that minimises to the System Tray when inactive. Cerulean's $US25 Trillian Pro 2.01 adds such features as a space-saving tabbed interface, separate contact lists for each IM service account, enhanced file transfers and support for plug-ins.
Fans of open-source software may want to opt instead for the free (referring in this case both to its price and to its ownership) Gaim client. Like Trillian, Gaim supports the AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger and IRC protocols, but it also connects to the lesser-known Jabber, Gadu-Gadu and Zephyr IM networks. One reason I like Gaim is that its list identifies contacts with their IM network's icon, making it easier to see at a glance which system a particular friend is on.
If your messaging is limited to IM's bread and butter - text - either of these universal clients is just fine. The modifications that the major networks make in their IM protocols occasionally render both Trillian and Gaim incompatible with one or another service. Within a few days or weeks, though, the software makers usually succeed in reverse-engineering the new protocol, at which point they issue an updated version. For the most part, these programs work smoothly.
If you need to be able to transfer files or to perform other advanced messaging functions, Trillian and Gaim probably won't do. Although I didn't perform an exhaustive review of each program's compatibility with other IM systems, spot checks revealed several gaps. Neither Trillian nor Gaim supports voice or video chats (although Trillian claims to support video chats in Yahoo) - probably not a big deal for most people. Transferring files with Gaim or Trillian is somewhat covered though still buggy. Gaim supports file transfers over IRC, Jabber, Yahoo (1MB limit for sending) and AIM.
Despite these short-comings, you may still opt to use Trillian or Gaim as your consolidated, day-to-day IM interface. When you need to use a feature that your universal program doesn't support, you can disconnect from the IM system in question and then launch the native client software required for the advanced duties.
All four major IM services allow you to create a personal profile in which you describe yourself and your interests, including your name, gender, age, home address, phone number and e-mail address. This is information that stalkers, identity thieves, spammers and other online wolves on the prowl can use to target you. Leave your IM profiles blank; if the fields must be filled in, enter fictitious data. To view and change your profile in AIM 5.5, choose My AIM-Edit Profile; in ICQ Pro and Lite, select Main-View/Change My Details; in MSN Messenger 6.2 or Windows Messenger, choose Tools-Options-Personal and click Edit Profile; and in Yahoo Messenger, select Login-Edit My Contact Info.
No matter how low an IM profile you might maintain, the medium remains inherently insecure. Anyone with access to the network between your PC and the IM service's host computer can intercept your log-in and message traffic. If your relationship with IM is easy come, easy go, that may not be a big deal. But if your IM activity is business-related, very personal, or otherwise sensitive, you may want to encrypt your transmissions for privacy. Starting with version 5.2.3211, AIM allows you to digitally sign and encrypt your chat and file transfers by using a personal digital certificate. Verisign (www.verisign.com.au) sells these certificates (which you download to your computer as a file) for $33 per year. To purchase a certificate in AIM 5.5, choose My AIM-Edit Options-Edit Preferences, select Security at the bottom of the Category list, and click Add. None of the other native IM clients offers encryption. Trillian Basic and Pro have a built-in encryption feature called SecureIM that works with both AIM and ICQ accounts. To enable SecureIM, click the large globe button at the bottom of the Trillian contact list and choose Preferences. Scroll down to the Chatting Services section in the left panel, and select Misc under either the AIM branch or the ICQ branch (see screen shot). Select Activate SecureIM Capabilities and click OK. As the dialogue box warns, if problems result, disable the feature.
Last, if you want to secure all of your IM activity with encryption and a host of other safeguards, consider installing Zone Labs' IMsecure utility. You can switch from the free version of the program to a 15-day trial of IMsecure Pro with a single click. Users of Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm firewall will find IMsecure's interface familiar and easy to configure.
Talk of the town: instant messaging smorgasbord