Tag Archives: ICQ

Phone as Beacon

The idea that your cellphone may become a beacon of your availability took one small step closer yesterday, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing amid all the post-turkey bloat.

The theory is this. Cellphones have gotten smarter, but they still miss one vital ingredient that computer users have had for years: presence. Anyone using an instant messenger, from ICQ to Skype, will know that they can indicate to their buddies, colleagues and family whether they’re at their computer, in a meeting, dead, or whatever.

I’m not available. Leave a message

This is useful information: It’s a bit like knowing whether someone is at home before you phone them. But this only works if the computer is on, connected to the Internet and the user has the software installed and sets their ‘presence’ accordingly.

Think how more powerful this concept would be if you carried it with you: if your cellphone could transmit to friends, colleagues and family whether you were available — and even where you were. This is not that hard to do, via the same instant messaging programs that now operate only on your PC. This is the vision of companies like instant messaging developer Followap, bought yesterday by a company called NeuStar, which handles a lot of cellphone number traffic via its directory services. (Followap press release here.)

The problem remains twofold: how to get all the instant messaging users onto their cellphone, and how to make these services work with each other, or interoperate. After a decade of these services, few still allow a message sent from one service to reach another. NeuStar, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Gerry Purdy, has been developing the standards for mobile instant messaging, or Mobile IM, not just in terms of Session Internet Protocol (which sets up the communication between two users) but also for interoperability and directory standards.

Clearly NeuStar, positioned at the hub of cellphone traffic, are well placed to see the potential of Mobile IM and to act on it. Followap have the software and the ears of some cellular operators. I should have spotted that both companies occupied booths next to each other at Singapore’s recent 3GSM Asia confab, and were busy singing each other’s praises. (I wrote something about Followap in my weekly column earlier this month, tho subscription only, I’m afraid.)

Of course, it’s going to be a long march to persuade the big players like Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft to share their IM traffic with each other (something they’ve not yet managed to do on the PC) but also with cellular operators, but something like that needs to happen if Mobile IM is going to take off. Says Mr. Purdy in his most recent note (sorry, can’t find this online): “And, maybe – just maybe – the NeuStar-Followap combination will lead to the Holy Grail in messaging – where all portal users and wireless subscribers will be able to freely IM each other. That would be huge.”

It would be huge, but don’t underestimate the power of SMS. Gerry sees SMS as having inherent limitations — 160 characters only, lack of message threading — but these aren’t necessarily downsides. The character limit has never been considered a real burden for most users, who either enjoy the brevity or else can simply send a longer message and have it split. As for message threading, this is a simple software problem that is being fixed in many phones. Mobile IM will only really take off if it is cheaper than SMS and includes powerful features that extend the use of the phone to a device to signal one’s availability, or presence.

For me the best thing about the Followap demo I received was that by switching your phone to silent your buddy list presence was automatically switched to ‘Do not Disturb.’ Immediately, all your buddies/colleagues/family know you not available without having to do anything. Now, that’s a glimpse of the future.

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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.

At Last, Some IM Interoperability

InformationWeek quotes AP as saying that Microsoft and Yahoo “Reach Instant Messaging Deal”:  

Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc have agreed to make their two instant-messaging programs work together, a partnership that could threaten market leader America Online, people familiar with the situation said. The deal was expected to be announced early Wednesday, these people told The Associated Press. One of them works closely with Microsoft. The other was briefed on the deal. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.

A Yahoo-Microsoft partnership, allowing users of the competing services to exchange messages seamlessly, would give the two companies nearly as many users combined as AOL has in total.

If true: Thank God. I use Trillian so have no real use for this but this makes a lot of sense. Not only, as the article points out, do Microsoft and Yahoo lag AOL/ICQ in terms of users, but (as the article doesn’t point out) Skype and Google Talk threaten to steal the rug from under their feet if they don’t get interoperability sorted out. First, because Google Talk is open so you can access it via, say, Trillian; but with Skype mixing voice, telephony, text (and later, video) the old smiley-driven instant messaging software is going to look a tad old fashioned.

Users have long been frustrated with not being able to instant message across platforms. Now they are going to increasingly insist on being able to conduct voice conversation, video conversations and teleconferencing with anyone else on instant messaging. Perhaps Microsoft and Yahoo belatedly realise that. Their enemy on this is not AOL: it’s Google and eBay/Skype.

The Phisher Commuter

My colleague Lee Gomes writes in WSJ.com in his  Portals column (a few days old, this, sorry; but it is free) about phishers, and what they’re really like, quoting a guy called Christopher Abad, a researcher for Cloudmark:

Mr. Abad himself is just 23 years old, but he has spent much of the past 10 years hanging out in IRC chat rooms, encountering all manner of hackers and other colorful characters. One thing that’s different about phishers, he says, is how little they like to gab.

“Real hackers will engage in conversation,” he says. “With phishers, it’s a job.”

Readers may remember my piece a year or so back (sorry I can’t find the URL for this, and it would be subscription anyway) based on interviews with several people from East European and former Soviet Union countries who worked in various stages of the phishing train, from trojan writers to mule hunters (folk who try to recruit foreignes to move money from stolen accounts to overseas havens).

I found something slightly different to Abad: For sure these guys think it’s just a job, but they also were quite keen to justify what they did, either saying it was the only work around, or else talking in terms of redistributing a little wealth. One guy in some obscure former Soviet bloc town said he trudged several miles each day to an Internet cafe, where he worked sometimes 20 hours a day trying to recruit mules on ICQ and IRC, before walking back to his apartment where his wife and baby waited. She thought he was a stockbroker, he said.

A good piece by Lee; too little light is shed on this submerged industry. But I wonder whether, as phishing gets more popular and focused, it hasn’t moved west?

Skype vs ICQ?

Skype is big — today it said its software has been downloaded by 100 million users, and 2.7 million people are online as I type this —- and it’s widely seen as a challenge to the old telephone companies. But could it also topple ICQ and other instant messaging programs? After all, the folk at Skype seem to spend as much time adding features to the text chat part of the software as they do adding features to the VoIP bit.

No real way of telling, I guess, except this graph offers an interesting peek: Using Alexa’s Traffic History Graph service to show how traffic to ICQ.com and Skype.com compare over the past year:

Icqvsskype

Clearly Skype has made big strides and continues to narrow the gap. This despite the fact that ICQ’s website is not just a download site but a community portal.

Using Intelliseek’s BlogPulse tool — measuring references in blogs to the terms ‘ICQ’ and ‘Skype’ reveal a somewhat similar pattern over the six months:

Icqvsskype2

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?

Is SPIM Another Non-Problem?

No. It is a real problem, if only because there’s still plenty of sleazy people figuring out new ways to ruin your day.

There’s some skepticism out there about this new spam threat: SPIM, in case you didn’t know, is spam that’s delivered, not to your inbox, but to your instant messaging chat program, like ICQ. Some folk say it’s a problem.  Yankee Group, according to a recent report, estimates that currently five to eight percent of all instant messages are spam generated by automated bots. Others are more skeptical. Greg Cher on thespamweblog points out that he’s “been on all three of the major IM’s for at least years and have never…ever had a problem with ‘spim’.”

I was skeptical too, until I today saw these programs being peddled via PRWeb: ”ICQPromoter is a powerful tool for sending messages to thousands of Online or Offline ICQ users. Audience can be targeted by specific interests, country, city, occupation, age, gender or language.” The company behind this, Nanosoft Inc. of Milpitas, California, also offer:

  • Admessenger (“a feature-rich direct advertising program designed to deliver your messages directly to upto 2 Billion Windows 2000, XP, and NT desktops…It is like showing Banner Advertisement with paying a single penny”)
  • Yahoo Answering Machine (“Serves as Perfect Advertising Machine and Advertisement Machine. You can send Message in Room after Predefined time. Send PM to all users in Current Chat Room.”)

You get the idea. These programs will basically spam large numbers of people using chat messengers, or Yahoo chat rooms, all of them automated. What would be amusing if it weren’t so dumb is the fact that Nanosoft prominently display their “zero-tolerance policy” towards Spam. “If you have found this website due to spam, please let us know,” they say. Presumably that doesn’t include using the products they sell?

On closer inspection, Nanosoft have some other rather sleazy products on display. How about this for size: Shadow Pooper [sic], which will, unknown to the user, “periodically open new browser (in fullscreen mode) and load your ad page.” And just in case that’s not intrusive enough for you, “it also can change users Homepage in browser to any URL you choose.” Helpfully, the blurb says “All you need, is to force user install your application on his PC. Use your imagination. Advertise your application as free xxx-dialer, internet booster, etc… You can even include it in installation pack with other free software.” So now we know how spyware works.

Then there’s the problem that Google have come across: The way that advertising via pay-per-click can be abused. Nanosoft offer this: the Traffic Blaster/ URL Generator which will “allow you to generate a massive amount of traffic to any website you wish. Affiliate sites, Banner Sites, Exit Exchanges, and the list goes on and on.” To be honest, I’m not clear from the blurb exactly how this works. Definitely worth a closer look though.

Ironically, these are the same guys selling Popup blockers, chat encrypters, privacy protecters and evidence eliminators. Which brings me back to an earlier post on the question: How can you buy software to protect your privacy from folk you don’t trust? (And I couldn’t help noticing that Nanosoft don’t really trust their customers. This message appears on their website: Because of the growing incidences of Internet fraud, we log everything and take it very seriously. All the fraudulent transactions will be reported to FBI’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC).” Right.)

Can We Trust Anti-Spy Software?

Who watches over the watchers? In software, it seems, it’s often the same folk.
 
Reading a press release for X-Cleaner, “a privacy tool suite that detects and removes installed spyware and adware components”, it sounded interesting enough for a mention. After all, it “includes tools to securely delete files, edit the registry, disable startup programs”, as well as “IE home page protection, cookie, cache and history cleaning, built-in password generator and more”. What’s more, there’s a free version with some features disabled. Not a bad tool for those folk worried about keylogging phisher trojans and whatnot.
 
But when I tried to find out who the company is behind it — never easy with companies working outside the U.S., I find — I saw some of the other software sold by the same company. The company is called XKee, it does not reveal where it’s based (and the WHOIS registrant information for the website contains a UK-based email address and a half-complete New York mailing address). XKee says (and I reproduce the original formatting here) “WE DO NOT MAKE ANY OF THE SOFTWARE! EACH PRODUCT IS SUBMITTED BY A SOFTWARE COMPANY OR DEVELOPER, OR IS PICKED FROM THE INTERNET BY OUR EDITORS. WHAT WE DO IS REVIEW AND RATE THE SOFTWARE, CATEGORIZE IT AND MAKE IT AVAILABLE TO YOU.”
 
Among those products are:
  •  iSpyNOW, “the critically acclaimed, award winning remotely deployable computer monitoring application. iSpyNOW is first of its kind – offering users the ability to remotely monitor a machine via a web interface without ever having physical access to that PC. iSpyNOW 3.0 now sets a standard in the remote monitoring and surveillance market. Read below to see why iSpyNOW 3.0 is the most powerful remote surveillance software offered anywhere!”
  • SpyBuddy,  ”the award-winning, powerful spy software and computer monitoring product for monitoring spouses, children, co-workers, or just about anyone else! SpyBuddy allows you to monitor all areas of your PC, tracking every action down the last keystroke pressed or the last file deleted! SpyBuddy comes equipped with the functionality to record all AOL/ICQ/MSN/AIM/Yahoo chat conversations, all websites visited, all windows opened and interacted with, every application executed, every document printed, every file or folder renamed and/or modified, all text and images sent to the clipboard, every keystroke pressed, every password typed, and more!”

Now, I know that software sites such as this are not unusual, and it’s also not unusual that they’re going to sell software that plays both sides of the fence — snooping, and anti-snooping — but it made me wonder: In these days of sophisticated fakery, how do we know the anti-snooping software does what it says it does? How do we know the software is not doing its own kind of snooping, like the other products on sale? If a company is happily selling snooping software, how far can we trust them to sell us something that does what it says it does?

The answer in the case of X-Cleaner is this: Despite the similar sounding names, it does not appear that X-Cleaner is related to XKee. X-Cleaner, from what I can see, is a bona fide anti-spyware program produced in Belgium by a company called Xblock. It has been reviewed in PCWorld and elsewhere, so is probably kosher. But there’s no easy way of telling any of this by visiting the websites of XKee, X-Cleaner or Xblock. I could find no useful company page, nothing to identify the folk behind it and an address or something to grab a hold of.

My feeling is this: I’m sure XKee and companies are not into anything sleazy, but nowadays I think they have got be much more upfront about who they are if they want to be credible: Especially if they’re selling potentially law-breaking software like spyware and mass-mailers. We need a physical address, some names, a corporate identity that stands up to scrutiny and customer queries. For the user, I’d say this: Be wary of any software that promises to keep your privacy unless you’ve read a review by someone you respect, and you have a pretty good idea of who’s behind it. For columnists like me, I’m going to be more careful about what software I recommend in future. End of sermon.

Sending SMS From A Computer

Here’s a list of some of the available ‘PC to SMS’ services, courtesy of Russell Beattie. My own offerings:

Both Yahoo and ICQ chat offer some kind of SMS service, but I’ve found them to be somewhat unreliable. This is less to do with them and more to do with the end provider, but in the end if you don’t know your SMS has arrived, the service is pointless. The Asian experience, at least, has shown that free services don’t last, and people would rather pay a bit and know their SMSes have arrived, than try the lottery of a service that may or may not always work.

I’ve noticed Americans getting into SMS in the past couple of months, presumably because of improved services over there, which is great. Hopefully this will lead to an improvement in inter-carrier operability. Europe and Asia have long had these services — and the ability to send SMS between continents — so perhaps this is the start of something big.

News: Where Online Chat Is Going

 It’s now pretty clear where this Instant Messaging thing is going, and why Yahoo and Microsoft have suddenly started blocking third parties from piggybacking their services. Microsoft have announced a hook-up with news agency and financial data transporter Reuters allowing users of the Messenger network to chat with the 50,000 members of Reuters own internal network (used mainly by traders).
 
The idea, of course, is that the (alleged; probably much smaller) 100 million MSN users can go straight to their broker through a secure chat window. Or, as ENTnews puts it: “In theory, the combination could allow logged, real-time communications among traders and their clients. What better medium than IM for messages like “Buy!” or “Sell!” that can be immediately acknowledged by a broker?”
 
Expect to see more of this among the big boys. Yahoo are probably next up. This is not going to help ICQ users, for example, to chat with Yahoo Messenger users, but it is likely to make IM software more secure. Companies like Reuters are not going to allow instant messaging near their networks if it also brings viruses, hacking or can be easily eavesdropped.