A grown-up’s guide to instant messaging

As if you didn’t already spend enough time blocking spam, battling pop-up ads, and replying to every single e-mail message you receive, another Internet communication medium is competing for a chunk of your brain: instant messaging.

Although infamous for its use in chat rooms, where teens and virtually faithless spouses while away the hours, instant messaging is a good way to stay in touch with wired friends, coworkers, and customers. Better yet, IM is free.

As with most Internet tools, the trick to productive instant messaging is knowing how to use it and when not to use it. Here is an overview of available IM services and software, along with some commonsense advice on how to safeguard your privacy and security while you’re using them.

To get started in the world of instant messaging, you need a connection to the Internet, an account with one of the four major IM services, and IM client software. The big four are America Online Inc.’s (AOL’s) Instant Messenger (AIM), ICQ (also owned by AOL and run on the same network as AIM), Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Messenger (Windows XP users have Windows Messenger), and Yahoo Inc.’s Messenger.

All of the free services provide IM’s basics: one-on-one (private) text chat, multiparty text chat and the ability to transfer files. In addition, AIM, Windows Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger let you use a microphone and speakers or a headset attached to your computer to participate in telephone-like voice chats with similarly equipped IMers. Windows Messenger (though not its poorer cousin, MSN Messenger) and Yahoo Messenger enlist your Webcam for videoconferencing. ICQ, MSN Messenger, Windows Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger let you send text to SMS-capable cell phones.

Each of the four IM services hosts its own topic-oriented, multiparty chat rooms, which are a colossal waste of time and computing resources. The most popular IM service, AIM, offers chat rooms nominally devoted to music, TV, computers, family, health, and of course, dating. It matters not the topic — each and every one of AIM’s unmoderated rooms is rife with the lowest form of online life, circa 2004: porn spam. Accordingly, gentle reader, please don’t let your kids anywhere near an AIM chat room.

MSN’s chat rooms contain less spam, and they’re often moderated by human hosts or by an automated host. Microsoft has even instituted a subscription policy. For access to all chat rooms, you must subscribe to the MSN Chat service (at US$20 per year). The effect of this change, however, is that actual chat conversation has declined to zero, despite the fact that dozens of people seem to be logged on.

What is happening here? Right-clicking a name in the list of chat room members, every one of whom appears to be female, and choosing View, Profile reveals the answer: porn. The same thing goes for Yahoo’s assortment of chat rooms as well.

Each service’s free client program is designed to give you maximum control over your online IM presence and experience, including the ability to determine who can and who can’t send you messages, and whether you appear to be available for chatting. They also provide a list of your contacts, enable you to transfer files, and support advanced voice, video, and mobile messaging. But the programs are far from perfect. AIM, ICQ, and MSN Messenger all manage to cram banner ads into their compact interfaces — in ICQ’s case, in both the main window and the message windows. Yahoo Messenger skips the ads in basic IM screens but tacks them onto its chat rooms. The other drawback to using each service’s native software is the clutter: To reach friends on different services, you must run multiple IM programs.

One result of hostile competition in the instant-messaging market is that each IM service is incompatible with the others: You can’t send an instant message to a Yahoo Messenger subscriber using AIM, for example, or vice versa. (The lone exception is ICQ, which allows you to connect to members of parent AOL’s other service, AIM.) Wouldn’t it be great if one program let you connect to all four IM systems?

One does — or rather, two do. Cerulean Studios’ Trillian Basic is a free universal IM client that connects to all four systems, as well as to the noncommercial Internet Relay Chat network (visit the IRC Help Archive for extensive IRC primers and guides). Like the native IM clients, Trillian Basic displays your contacts and their online status in a compact interface that minimizes to the system tray when inactive. Cerulean’s US$25 Trillian Pro 2.01 adds such features as a space-saving tabbed interface, separate contact lists for each IM service account, enhanced file transfers, and support for plug-ins.

Fans of open-source software may want to opt instead for the free (referring in this case both to its price and to its ownership) Gaim client. Like Trillian, Gaim supports the AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, and IRC protocols; but it also connects to the lesser-known Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, and Zephyr IM networks. One reason I like Gaim is that its list identifies contacts with their IM network’s icon, making it easier to see at a glance which system a particular friend is on.

If your messaging is limited to IM’s bread and butter — text — either of these universal clients is just ducky. The modifications that the major networks make in their IM protocols occasionally render both Trillian and Gaim incompatible with one or another service. But within a few days or weeks, the software makers usually succeed in reverse-engineering the new protocol, at which point they issue an updated version. For the most part, these programs work smoothly.

If you need to be able to transfer files or to perform other advanced messaging functions, Trillian and Gaim probably won’t do. Though I didn’t perform an exhaustive review of each program’s compatibility with other IM systems, spot checks revealed several gaps. Neither Trillian nor Gaim supports voice or video chats (although Trillian claims to support video chats in Yahoo) — probably not a big deal for most people. Nor could either program receive files sent from an AIM 5.2 client, though both were able to send files to the same user. Also, Trillian had trouble receiving files from another Trillian user over the MSN network, and neither Trillian Basic nor Gaim supports file transfers over the Yahoo network.

Despite these shortcomings, you may still opt to use Trillian or Gaim as your consolidated, day-to-day IM interface. When you need to use a feature that your universal program doesn’t support, you can disconnect from the IM system in question and then launch the native-client software required for the advanced duties.

All four major IM services allow you to create a personal profile in which you describe yourself and your interests, including your name, gender, age, home address, phone number, and e-mail address. This is information that stalkers, identity thieves, spammers, and other online wolves on the prowl can use to target you. Leave your IM profiles blank; if the fields must be filled in, enter fictitious data. To view and change your profile in AIM 5.2, choose My AIM, Edit Profile; in ICQ Pro and Lite, select Main, View/Change My Details; in MSN Messenger 6.1 or Windows Messenger, choose Tools, Options, Personal and click Edit Profile; and in Yahoo Messenger, select Login, Edit My Contact Info.

No matter how low an IM profile you maintain, the medium remains inherently insecure. Anyone with access to the network between your PC and the IM service’s host computer can intercept your log-in and message traffic. If your relationship with IM is easy come, easy go, that may not be a big deal. But if your IM activity is business-related, very personal, or otherwise sensitive, you may want to encrypt your transmissions for privacy. Starting with version 5.2.3211, AIM allows you to digitally sign and encrypt your chat and file transfers by using a personal digital certificate. Verisign sells these certificates (which you download to your computer as a file) for US$15 per year. To purchase a certificate in AIM 5.2, choose My AIM, Edit Options, Edit Preferences, select Security at the bottom of the Category list, and click Add.

None of the other native IM clients offer encryption. But Trillian Basic and Pro have a built-in encryption feature called SecureIM that works with both AIM and ICQ accounts. To enable SecureIM, click the large globe button at the bottom of the Trillian contact list and choose Preferences. Scroll down to the Chatting Services section in the left panel, and select Misc under either the AIM branch or the ICQ branch. Select Activate SecureIM Capabilities and click OK. As the dialog box warns, if problems result, disable the feature.

Last, if you want to secure all of your IM activity with encryption and a host of other safeguards, consider installing Zone Labs’ IMsecure utility. You can switch from the free version of the program to a 15-day trial of IMsecure Pro with a single click. Users of Zone Labs Inc.’s ZoneAlarm firewall will find IMsecure’s interface familiar and easy to configure.

AOL Instant Messenger 5.2: The most popular IM client doesn’t do video or SMS messaging to cell phones; it does display ads.

Gaim 0.72: A free, open-source universal IM client, Gaim supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, and IRC; it has just basic features, though.

ICQ Pro 2003b: This feature-rich, ad-supported client connects to both AIM and ICQ clients; it sends SMS messages but doesn’t support voice or video chat.

ICQ Lite: The streamlined version of ICQ contains a subset of ICQ Pro’s features.

IMsecure/IMsecure Pro Trial Version: Zone Labs’ free IM security utility protects you from various threats that standard firewalls and antivirus programs miss.

MSN Messenger 6.1: Microsoft’s IM client software for Windows versions other than XP supports voice, video, and SMS chat.

Trillian Basic 0.74F: This free universal IM client lacks ads and supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, and IRC protocols; no voice or video chat.

Windows Messenger: This client, compatible with MSN Messenger, is available only as a component of Windows XP; it supports voice, video, and SMS chat.

Yahoo Messenger: Often overlooked, this IM client does it all — voice, video, and SMS chat — with fewer ads than other systems carry.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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