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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 3/3/06 What's the best instant messenger?

by: Marc Bennett March 2, 2006 3:41 PM PST

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3/3/06 What's the best instant messenger?

by Marc Bennett ModeratorCNET staff - 3/2/06 3:41 PM


Hi! I've just retired and have much more time on my hands, so I'm trying something new. I'm fairly new to all this computer and Internet stuff, and I hear a lot about instant messaging as a great way to keep in touch with friends and family and to meet new people. How is this different from e-mail? Is it safe? What are the risks involved in using messaging programs? What are the best ones? Are they all free? If I decide to get one, I'd like to know my options before choosing. Thanks for any advice!

Julie K. of Roanoke, Virginia



Welcome to the wide world of Internet, and its various wonders!

Instant messaging is best thought of as the computer's equivalent of CB radio, albeit done with typing, not voice. Basically, you find a "channel" (sometimes called a room) if you want to do a public chat, or you can watch for friends and initiate private chat with them if they are online.

Let's say you are BigFisherman (your "screenname" or "chat handle"). You logged into the chat network and in your buddy list is WaderLover your fishing buddy. You were browsing the net when the messenger beeped... Your buddy just logged in and your messenger is notifying you as you had set it up to. You want to know how his fishing trip went, so you double click on his name to establish a connection.

Once a connection is established, you get a small window where each person types their own message, and it shows up on both machines. So you end up with something like this:

BigFisherman: So how was your fishing trip today?
WaderLover: Weather's perfect, but the fishies ain't biting
BigFisherman: Really? Must be your lures. What were you trying for?
WaderLover: Trout. I have this custom lure I got from my friend, who...

Well, you get the idea. You type one sentence, they type one sentence, and the result appears almost instantaneously on each other's computer. Thus, instant messaging! If you use mobile phones, it's rather similar to the SMS text messaging on those, except IM is a bit more interactive, as you can see a full conversation going on. It's such fun, that some of the more modern mobile phones can actually do instant messaging, and chat with PCs in near real-time!

As you can imagine, this is quite a bit different from e-mail. E-mail is a bit slower, longer, more... deliberate. E-mails are like letters whereas IM is more like... chat. Clearly, if you know how to type you'll get more out of IM.

Instant messenger programs fall into a few major networks: AOL Instant Messenger (also called AIM), Microsoft IM, and Yahoo! Messenger. They each have their own program and operate their own network, and are not compatible with each other. It's like 3 cell phone companies whose customers cannot call each other if they are using different companies! There are a few independents out there like ICQ (say it like "I seek You") and GoogleChat and others, as well as a few "unified" attempts like GAIM and Trillian. The "unified" attempts operate over multiple networks.

If you've never used IM before, you'll need to choose one of the big camps, download their specific IM program, and register your "handle" or screenname, as AOL calls it. By this time, all the good ones are probably taken, so you'll probably end up with something like BigFisherman3642 or something like that. But be creative (try not to use your name though).

As instant messengers run in the background and you tend to keep them open, they are rapidly gaining in all sorts of abilities, like showing you real-time stock quotes, sports scores, news headlines, and quite a few ads, as well as additional communication abilities like video chat and even ability to place Internet phone calls (separate subscription and or hardware are probably required).

In general, messenger programs are quite safe, as they don't transfer any code, (i.e. program), just text, but some of the messengers let you send files to your friends, and receive them as well. Fortunately, that can be turned off completely. There were supposedly a few IM viruses that exploit the ability to link to certain websites and such, but you can turn those off in the security settings as well. Basically, NEVER click on any URLs and such unless you can trust the referrer. That security tip applies anywhere... on websites, in e-mail, even in IM.

The IM clients are mostly free, especially the single-network ones. The multi-network clients that are still in testing are free, but they may charge later. Also, the messengers may contain additional-cost features like video, Internet phone calls, and so on. Pure chat is free though.

As for which one to use... It really depends on who are you likely to be chatting with and if they are already on a certain network. It doesn't hurt to run multiple IM programs, it just makes your desktop look a bit cluttered. My cousin routinely runs 3 instant messengers together, and holds about 6-7 simultaneous chats with her various friends. The big 3 (AIM, MSNM, and Y!M) are constantly improving their products, and new features are constantly being added and bugs addressed.

I'd advise you to check with your friends and family who are already using an instant messenger and join that network, and keep each other in the "buddy list", so you can just track each other, and try the whole thing out.

Have fun, and again, welcome to the wide world of Internet!

Submitted by: Kasey C. of San Francisco, CA

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