Tag Archives: AOL Instant Messenger

The Message Behind Instant Messaging

Be careful what you wish for. For nearly a decade I, and a lot of people like me, have been dreaming of the day when we could send an instant message to someone who wasn’t on the network as us. An instant messaging program is one that sits on your computer and allows you to send short text messages to other Internet users in real time — if they are online they see the message as soon as you’ve sent it. it’s faster than email because they get it straightaway, and it has the added bonus of letting you know whether the other person is at their computer and awake. Hence the name instant messaging. The big players, like Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google all have their own programs and networks, with millions of users. The services are free but beam ads at users through the software.

Now here’s the rub: Because there are no open standards, most instant messenger users can only trade messages with others using the same program. So if I signed up with ICQ, say, I won’t be able to chat with Aunt Marge if she only signed up with Yahoo. It’s a bit like only being able to send emails to people who use the same email service as yourself. Or only to make phone calls to other people using the same operator.

I’m not going to get into who’s to blame for all this. For the past few years I’ve been using a program that lets me include all my chat accounts in one small program, so I can talk to anyone on any service without having to run four or five different chat programs. No ads and less clutter on my screen. Yes, I do feel slightly bad using software that leaches off other people’s work, but if those other people can’t solve my communication problems with Aunt Marge I had to find someone who could.

But as instant messaging has grown, the arguments against fencing users of each system in have grown weaker. Instant messaging is no longer the province of teenagers: it’s as popular in business now as it is in the home, and many a market deal from London to Seoul has been done over instant messenger. Not only that: and the rise of voice over internet services like Skype, which include instant text messaging features, and the introduction of video chat, mean the clamor for interoperability has become harder to ignore.

Hence the recent announcement that Yahoo and Microsoft have started a test run of allowing users of their services to swap messages. This is a big step forward, although it’s noticeable that AOL, by far the biggest player in all this with their ICQ and AIM services, aren’t yet joining the party. Still, it’s good news. But there’s a sneaking worry about it all this. Why has it taken them so long? And why now? In reality, hard commercial reasons lie behidn the decision. It’s not just about helping me send a message to Aunt Marge on another network. In the recent words of Niall Kennedy (thanks, BJ Gillette), program managers at Microsoft, it’s about gathering information about us as we chat and surf so that the companies can target better ads at us. Quite reasonable for them to want to do, I suppose, but one more reason for me to be a tad suspicious about what I say or do online. For now I’m sticking with my third party, ad-free, leaching program.

News: More Hacking Woes

 These days the Internet reads like a bad movie script. Reuters reports that security holes in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser have been exploited by hackers to hijack AOL instant messaging accounts and force unsuspecting Web surfers to run up massive phone bills. Some Internet Explorer users are also finding that malicious Web sites are secretly slipping trojan programs onto their computers, according to eEye Digital Security, which discovered the original security vulnerability. Such stealth programs can include keystroke loggers that record everything a person types or software to erase the hard drive, among other things.
 
The attacks are accomplished by leading Internet Explorer users to a malicious Web site, either by sending an e-mail with a link to the Web page or distributing a link through instant messaging. When the Web site appears, it downloads code that can execute commands on its own onto the unsuspecting computer user’s machine, according to Copley. An attacker has written a program that uses a security hole in Internet Explorer to hijack an already running AOL Instant Messenger account, changes the password and send a message to the buddies list with a link to the malicious Web page, according to postings on the Bugtraq security e-mail list.

Software: A Way To Avoid The Messaging Nasties

 Do a lot of online chat, or instant messaging (IM)? If you do, you’re as vulnerable to nasty folk trying to do nasty things to your computer as using email, including viruses, worms and other ways to get information from your PC, take over your PC or just to make it stop working.
 
 
The good news is that Zone Labs, who make the excellent Zone Alarm firewall (a firewall is a piece of software that tries to keep out some of these nasties), will today launch a product to specifically target IM threats to your computer. IMsecure Pro 1.0 IM traffic and blocks malicious code and spam, encrypts messages sent between IMsecure users and allows users to set rules on outgoing messages and block features such as file transfers and voice and video chats.
 
IMsecure Pro works with Yahoo’s Messenger, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, and America Online’s AOL Instant Messenger and costs $19.95. A free, dressed-down version of the product for personal and nonprofit users will be available by the end of the month. Given how useful Zone Alarm is, I’d keep an eye out for this. At the time of writing the product had not been posted.