Tag Archives: 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.

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 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.

Update From The IM Wars Front

 Seems like the IM wars aren’t over yet. Further to my postings about Yahoo and Microsoft Messenger apparently blocking third party chat aggregators like Trillian, seems the latter’s patches don’t seem to be enough to keep folk connected. CNET reports that Yahoo has begun blocking Cerulean Studios’ Trillian software from communicating with its own instant messaging software as part of its plan to limit third parties from piggybacking on its service.
 
On Thursday, some Trillian users began reporting an inability to communicate with their Yahoo Messenger contacts. A Yahoo spokeswoman on Friday morning confirmed that Trillian users’ inability to access Yahoo Messenger was the result of recent policies put in place by the Web giant. A day after last week’s Yahoo announcement, Trillian released software patches that were aimed at allowing it to continue accessing Yahoo and MSN buddy lists. But as of this week, CNET says, those patches do not appear to be working.

News: More Bad News For Chat

 Bad news for those of us who use third party programs to collect all our instant messaging accounts. I use Trillian, which does a great job of allowing me to access ICQ, Yahoo, AOL and MSN from one window. Not for long, though: CNET reports that Yahoo is planning an upgrade to its instant messaging software that will block access via such third-party IM applications. The reason: to protect IM users from unwanted spamming from advertisers.
 
Yahoo’s announcement, CNET reports, comes on the heels of similar news from rival IM software maker Microsoft that it plans to bar third-party client software from gaining access to its MSN Messenger IM applications. On Oct. 15 Trillian users will also lose access to the Microsoft IM client.
 
I think the spam argument is specious. I can well understand Yahoo and co not liking folk such as Trillian piggybacking their (free) chat services but to blame spam is just silly. To do in the same breath as suggesting they’re in favour of some general standard that would allow folk from, say, ICQ, to chat with someone from MSN is also pretty pathetic. These services have been around for more than five years now, and that no such standard exists is absurd. That’s why I’ve used Trillian and I’ll continue to do so.

News: Another Reason To Dump MSN Messenger?

 Microsoft look like they’re going their own way again. An article by IDG says it’s making changes to its MSN instant messaging (IM) service that will lock out users of third-party software that uses the service as well as users of older versions of Microsoft’s own Messenger client.
 
 
Users have to upgrade to the latest versions of MSN or Windows Messenger by Oct. 15 or they will no longer be able to log on, Microsoft spokesman Sean Sundwall said. This will lock out, at least for a while, users of IM software such as Trillian, Imici and Odigo that allow users to consolidate multiple IM accounts in one client.

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.

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.

Loose Wire — I Seek

Loose Wire — I Seek Mum, Nick and Sally

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Communication is a funny thing. Living in Southeast Asia in the 1980s I’d type out letters in the enveloping heat, making carbon copies — confident the original would never arrive — and fight my way to the post office past beggars, pickpockets and expat financial-services salesmen, just to stay in touch. Now I have a handphone, e-mail and fax and I can barely talk my thumbs into tapping out a text message home once in a while. It may just be me, but I suspect the harder it is to stay in touch, the better we are at it.

One phenomenon that has bucked this trend is Internet messaging. ICQ was revolutionary when it first popped up in 1996 via an Israeli company called Mirabilis. The first time I used it to send a message to my friend Jim across the South China Sea was mind-blowing.

Now ICQ has been snapped up by AOL and boasts some 127 million users — a sign that people seem to want to stay in touch. For those of us with friends and family in different time zones, such programs are a good way to exchange casual greetings when our on-line sessions happen to coincide.

That said, there’s a downside and it must be fixed before messaging really catches on. While ICQ is by far the most popular chat program or messaging client, Microsoft also has its own, as do AOL and Yahoo. The problem is whether or not to allow users on one service to interact with users on another. So far things haven’t worked out; AOL has blocked most attempts at hooking up to their users, arguing they don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry hacking into their computers.

Fair point, but in reality the issue is money: These programs spread like wildfire because they were free, and so far no one’s making any money. ICQ has started discreetly adding small adverts but it’s not going to make a dent in the cost of hosting tens of millions of chatty messaging folk. Until chat becomes like your mobile-phone service — where you can be assured of reaching someone, whatever network they’re on — it’s going to be a gimmick. Loading a different program for each service gets messy.

But this is where it gets interesting. Some enterprising dudes have started offering software that handles more than one service, meaning that if you have friends with Yahoo, Microsoft and ICQ accounts, for example, you can chat with them via one program. The best of these is Trillian (www.trillian.cc), written by Kevin Kurtz and Scott Werndorfer and already boasting 2 million copies.

As you can imagine, the giants aren’t happy about two whippersnappers piggybacking on all their hard work. The logos of Microsoft’s MSN, AOL and Yahoo are reduced to acne-like splodges inside Trillian’s window and are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to users, who are just happy to be able to connect with their chums on other services.

AOL has already made its feelings known by attempting to shut out Trillian, who have spent much of the past few weeks trying to get back in.

Trillian may be small fry, but they’ve opened the door. AT&T launched a new version of their IM Anywhere program in February that connects to all the other services except ICQ. Fending off two guys in a bedsit may be one thing for AOL, but AT&T may be a tougher proposition.

Where is this going to take us? I’d like to see basic text messages to all services offered as a standard, with users deciding which program they use to pull all their contacts together. PalTalk, a small start-up that also connects to AOL, has found there’s money in extra services like voice, video and professional chat groups.

For most, text chat is just a great way of staying in touch with people across the street or planet. Most don’t care which program does it, and aren’t crazy about all the extra hoopla companies try to cram in to lure folk aboard.

So just give us simple Internet messaging for free, and charge for premium services like security, messaging between handphones and Internet, or on-line collaboration for professional use. Who knows? I might even persuade my mum to sign up: It beats picking up a phone.