Tag Archives: Comparison of instant messaging clients

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.

The Ugly Instant Messenger

I’m a big fan of Trillian, the IM aggregator, but I had to download and install AIM, AOL’s Instant Messenger last night for an abortive video conference. Sheesh, what a monster it is (AIM, not the conference). Do AOL and the other biggies still not get it?

For sure, Trillian is something of a parasite. It piggybacks other free instant chat services and makes money off them. But it does it very, very well: The Trillian interface, whatever the skin you put on it, is a masterpiece of simplicity, understatement and intuitiveness. Compare it with AIM or ICQ (both owned by AOL) which are behemoths, and, in the case of ICQ, an embarrassingly bloated caricature of the old Elvis Presley. (ICQ is now available in a ‘Lite’ version which supposedly sheds most of the rubbish, but it’s still ugly.)  

What’s more, AIM is intrusive. It loads on start-up without asking; it loads (painfully slowly) an ad-window, and it leaves icons trailing like empty beer cans behind a truck. I had to look closely at the contact window past all the ads and hernia-inducing graphics to find out who was an online buddy and who was an ad. Yuck.

I know these guys need to make money. But they don’t have to hoodwink users and bombard them with rubbish to do it. And they have all their priorities skewed anyway. Instead of trying to load these programs with silly extras and ads, they should be working on interoperability: The business model will start to come once all these services can hook up with each other. For now I’m sticking with Trillian, knowing I can talk to anyone I want in the same list. After a while you don’t even notice which service they’re using. How about that for branding?

Goodbye To The Browser?

Here’s some more interesting end-of-year stuff from Nielsen//NetRatings: a report issued today (PDF file) says that three out of every four home and work Internet users access the Internet using a non-browser based Internet application, particularly media players, instant messengers and file sharing applications. “With 76 percent of Web surfers using Internet applications, functionality has grown beyond the browser to become a fundamental piece of the overall desktop,” said Abha Bhagat, senior analyst Nielsen//NetRatings. “It’s become harder to distinguish when you’re on the Internet, blurring the lines between what’s sitting on the desktop and what’s coming from the World Wide Web.”

According to the report, the top five applications are Windows Media Player, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Real Player. Of these top five applications, Windows Media has the largest active user reach at 34 percent. AOL Instant Messenger was next at 20 percent, followed by Real Player also at 20 percent, MSN Messenger Service at 19 percent and Yahoo! Messenger Service, which reaches 12 percent of the active user base.

Interesting. But what does it actually tell us? First off, we shouldn’t get confused by the data. This doesn’t mean that folks are eschewing the browser, just that a lot of other programs are also connecting to the Internet (where is e-mail in all this?). Second, if Real Networks and MSN Messenger are anything to go by, a lot of these programs access the Internet without the user doing anything (or even knowing about it) so does this actually count? Lastly, there’s been plenty written already about how Microsoft is moving past the browser to incorporate similar functionality into its Office and other products — say Microsoft Word 2003’s Research Pane, for example — so it’s clear the big boys would have us move to more proprietary, locked-in environments, which all of the top five applications have in common. We’re not so much witnessing a demographic change as a deliberate shove by the main players.

My wish list? I’d like to see all of these players stop hoodwinking the end-user by loading their programs into the start-up queue automatically (you know who you are). It’s deliberately misleading (read: sleazy), it hogs resources and it skews data like Nielsen’s. I’d also like to see AOL, MSN and Yahoo all agree to share their instant messaging lists so folk like me don’t have to use great alternatives like Trillian to pull together our disparate buddy networks (Trillian will lump all your different Instant Messaging accounts into one easy to view window, minus all the ads and annoying pop-ups).

I see no danger in the browser gradually being phased out for plenty of web-related tasks. But, if the Internet has really become ‘part of the desktop’ let’s try to make it a place where ordinary folk can hang out without too much hassle.

Software: Messenger 6.0 Is Out! Whee….

 The new version of Microsoft’s Instant Messaging program, MSN Messenger, is now officially out. The new version comes with, wait for it, more than 60 new emoticons (smiley faces to you and me), including ones that come alive with animation (o horror of horrors), and the ability to make personal emoticons (even more horrors); dozens of background images and personal display pictures for the IM screen, online games such as Tic Tac Toe and Minesweeper which users can play at IM speed with friends (no wonder companies don’t like their employees using chat programs at work), an integrated, easy-to-use Webcam service to share live video and voice with other users, easy ways to save your favorite IM conversations to a personal hard drive.
 
 
What’s probably more interesting in the long run is MSN Messenger’s closer integration with other devices, including cell phone, personal digital assistants (PDAs), MSN Direct watches or Tablet PCs. Clearly this whole IM thing is going to converge at some point with SMS or text messaging — a mobile phone version of the same thing, really — while the more fancy enhancements are, as Microsoft says, “to help the online network attain its long-term goal of providing broadband users a growing array of communications services”. That’s short for making messaging a serious tool in the work place (presumably with lots of self-designed smileys with it too).
 
I have not used Messenger ever since it tried to automatically load itself every time I use Outlook or Outlook Express. (If you have the same problem, try this). I prefer Trillian, which keeps my desktop free of little IM clients. But then I’m a grouch.