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How it works: Instant messaging

PC World

May 25, 2000
Web posted at: 11:12 a.m. EDT (1512 GMT)

(IDG) -- Instant messaging: An Internet technology that lets you receive messages, attachments, and other data moments after they're sent.

Instant messaging isn't a toy anymore. While IM started as a way to chat with friends, the technology is becoming an essential tool for business. It offers the convenience of e-mail and the immediacy of a phone call, as well as file transfers and voice messaging. IM is the newest way to keep in touch.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Messages arrive in real time because both parties are constantly connected to the network.

  • You can send files and voice messages as well as text messages.

  • A lack of standards means you can communicate only with others who use the same messaging service.

  • Businesses are increasingly adopting the technology.

  • The "instant" in instant messaging is possible because the people sending and receiving messages remain constantly connected to their IM service. Recipients get messages as fast as the data can travel across the Internet. E-mail, on the other hand, is less immediate. E-mail technology sends messages to a server that stores the items until they are downloaded by the recipient's e-mail software.

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When you log on to an IM service, the software lets a server know you're available to receive messages. To send a message to another online user, you begin by selecting that person's name, usually from a contact list you've built. You then enter your message and click Send. The sent packet contains address information for the recipient, the message, and data identifying you as the sender.

Depending on which service you use, the server either directly relays the message to the recipient or facilitates a direct connection between you and the recipient.

Unfortunately, because there is no standard instant messaging protocol, you can send messages only to people who are logged on to the same service as you are. If you're using AOL Instant Messenger, you can't chat with someone who uses ICQ's messaging software.

Make the Connection

IM services use three means to move messages around: a centralized network, a peer-to-peer connection, or a combination of both.

In a centralized setup, users are connected to each other through a series of servers. These servers link to form a large network. When you send a message, servers find your recipient's PC and route the message through the network until it reaches its destination. IM services such as MSN Messenger use this method.

In the peer-to-peer approach -- used by ICQ, for example -- a central server keeps track of who is online and what their unique Internet Protocol addresses are. (An IP address identifies a computer so it can send and receive data via the Internet.) After you log on, the server sends you the IP addresses of everyone on your contact list who is currently logged on.

When you want to send a message to another ICQ user, your client sends it directly to the recipient's client, without involving the server. Messages don't go through the entire network. This speeds transfers of large files such as documents and photos because they don't get slowed by network traffic.

AOL's AIM combines the centralized and peer-to-peer methods. When you send a text message, it travels along AOL's centralized network. However, when you transfer files, pictures, or voice messages, the clients establish a peer-to-peer connection.

The best service for you is often the one that most of your friends or colleagues use. If you're not all signed on to the same service, the immediacy of instant messaging doesn't matter.

Get in the message business

Instant messaging caught on first with consumers: People logged on while surfing the Web and chatted with friends who were surfing at the same time. But the immediacy of IM makes it suitable for corporate communication as well. In a poll of 50 Fortune 500 companies, Forrester Research found that 46 percent expect to use IM services for business by 2002.

You can choose from any of a number of IM services, all of which are free. All you have to do is download the software. AOL Instant Messenger leads the pack in users, with more than 90 million signed up, including AOL subscribers and Internet-based AIM users. Combine AIM with ICQ -- also owned by AOL but incompatible with AIM -- and AOL easily dominates the market. Microsoft offers its own IM service, MSN Messenger, as do Web powerhouses such as Yahoo. Numerous smaller players also exist.

Besides basic text messaging and chatting, some of the programs offer other features. ICQ and AIM let you transfer files and images with their latest software. AIM 4.0 and ICQ 2000 include voice messaging that lets you talk in real time, as you would on a telephone. Voice messaging is accomplished using voice-over-IP, a telephony protocol that breaks your voice into digital packets to send over the Internet.

Running instant messaging software doesn't require heavy-duty hardware or a fast Internet connection. For instance, ICQ requires just a 66-MHz 486-DX2 PC with 8MB of RAM. And the small amount of information in a typical message means you can chat using a 56-kbps modem without perceptible delays. Of course, a faster computer and broadband Internet connection promotes quicker delivery.

Interoperability and standards

Instant messaging's biggest problem remains its lack of standards. In the world of e-mail, you can send a message to anyone who has an e-mail account, regardless of which service or software they use. But you can't do that with instant messaging, because each service uses a proprietary protocol and network. If you're signed on with AIM, you can chat only with other AIM users.

That hasn't stopped companies from trying to push interoperability. In 1999, Microsoft jiggered its MSN Messenger software to allow access to AIM users. AOL accused Microsoft of hacking into its system. Microsoft backed off several months later but continues to push for interoperability by supporting an industry organization called the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol Working Group.

The IMPPWG advocates an open standard for instant messaging that will provide interoperability between IM services. Microsoft and Lotus have signed on; AOL has not. AOL's strategy is to license its technology to other vendors. For example, Earthlink and Lycos both offer AIM software to their clients.

AOL's resistance to standards has prompted rivals to file a complaint with the FCC. CMGI, the company behind ICast and Tribal Voice (both produce software with IM ability), asked federal regulators to force AOL to open its AIM network before approving AOL's upcoming merger with Time Warner.

A few companies have decided to go ahead and make interoperability a reality without AOL's help. Jabber, Everybuddy and Bantu all offer software that integrate different IM services into one program. You still need to have an account with each service, but you can access them all from one application.

Since interoperability standards won't be implemented overnight, you may want to try Jabber or similar programs in the meantime if you have to sign up with multiple services.

Is Instant Messaging good for e-commerce?
Maay 19, 2000
Pressure mounts for instant messaging standard
May 2, 2000
Instant messaging enters realm of online customer service
January 31, 2000
Instant messaging's war of words
January 7, 2000
Coming Soon: Wireless instant messaging
November 23, 1999
AOL, Motorola develop wireless chat
October 15, 1999

ICQ inside and out
(PC World Online)
The ins and outs of AIM
(PC World Online)
Chat rooms for grown-ups
(PC World Online)
Instant messaging: Good for e-commerce?
Keeping track of stray minds
(PC World Online)
FCC asked to ensure open access to AIM
WAP service juggles all messages
(PC World Online)
Cisco forms new unified messaging unit

Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol Working Group (IMPPWG)
Tribal Voice

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