Instant messaging (IM) is a type of online communication. It differs from email in that it is much more immediate and conversational. When sent an instant message, a user is immediately notified and provided with a window where they can carry on a one-on-one conversation similar to a chat room. It serves as a communication form that is much less formal and more private than email.
Every user chooses a unique username that others use to contact them. Users add other users they wish to chat with to a list, usually called a “friends list” or “buddy list”. Users’ current status to chat is displayed, whether they are online, offline, away, or busy. Users can customize buddies by organizing them into lists and replacing the displayed username with alternate aliases.
There are many instant messaging services available from a wide variety of companies. In most cases, users must have the same instant messaging service to be able to contact each other.
Although forms of instant messaging predate the internet, the first mass market instant messenger was ICQ. Instead of choosing a username, users were assigned a unique number they would share with friends. ICQ was one of the first to incorporate many now-standard features like message history logging and offline messages. Below are some examples of some of the most popular instant messaging services.
ICQ was later bought by AOL and incorporated into the AIM network, but ICQ continued development because of its loyal user base. It continues to be a popular form of instant messaging today despite its low profile.
Instant Messaging was first available to AOL subscribers in the early 1990s in the form of the “buddy list” feature. Later AOL released the AIM software to allow non-AOL subscribers to use the service. This led to AIM becoming one of the first popular form of instant messaging and continues to be to this day, with over 50 million users. AIM Express allows users to access AIM without downloading the AIM client, through a web brower.
Although Google has a traditional instant message program, Google Talk, most users use the chat feature built into the Gmail web client, which makes any contact on their email list available to chat similar to other instant messaging programs. Conversations are logged and archived in the same way Gmail email conversations are.
Facebook has a built in instant messaging feature. Like Gmail Chat, any friends list user currently logged into Facebook is available to chat, without having to download any software.
Because of the wide range of instant messaging services, some users found themselves split between which services to use, or were force to install more than one to communicate with all their friends. In response, developers created programs that could connect to more than one service at a time without having to install all of them. Trillian is a commercial program that requires a premium subscription to access all of its features, and Pidgin is a free, open-source program original developed for Linux. Meebo is a website that allow users to access many different instant services at once, including Facebook and MySpaceIM, without having to download a program.
Many business enterprise programs incorporate instant messaging between users on the same intranet. They do not require an internet connection, only that users are connected to other coworkers using the same network and software. Lotus, Microsoft Office, Intuit Quickbooks, and Oracle are some of the enterprise packages that include these features, and some form of instant messaging is considered a standard feature in any networked enterprise software package.
Many online video games also have instant messaging. The Xfire and Steam programs allow anyone using the service to commutate with friends who use the same program. Messaging is available seamlessly even while a game is active, and these programs also track what games your friends are currently playing.
Over years of development, many features have been added to instant messaging services. Originally service was very simple, and users could not even keep conversation history or message offline users, but over time the amount of options increased. Most clients now allow transfers of files from user to user, video conferencing and audio chat through webcams and microphones, and use of instant messaging on mobile devices. Sharing clickable web links is considered standard. Some services, like ICQ, even have built-in games that friends can immediately play, like chess or tic-tac-toe.