Instant messaging has become a widely popular method of online communication. Its appeal is that it is more instantaneous than e-mail, because messages between users appear in real-time, allowing users to have conversations, and it is cheaper than making a telephone call, as using the basic messaging features of any instant messenger will be free.
For personal users instant messengers are a great way to stay in touch with friends - especially if users live far apart, as phoning can be expensive, while e-mail has more of the feel of a letter. For business users it can be a quick and easy way to communicate with colleagues and is less intrusive than phone calls, meaning a colleague wonâ€™t be as â€śput on the spotâ€ť to answer a query. Currently, the most popular instant messengers are AIM, ICQ, Skype, Yahoo! Messenger and Windows Live Messenger.
Most instant messengers will allow users to personalise their programme by adding pictures of themselves or connecting a webcam to allow other users to see what they look like. For those more camera shy, thereâ€™s the possibility of instead using animated versions of the user as their avatar, known as WeeMees or Klonies, which can be easily created online. Users can also transfer files or play games with their contacts.
By and large, the most popular instant messengers offer the same features. If a feature proves to be popular with one instant messenger, others are likely to incorporate similar ones to their programme â€“ after it proven to be popular to use instant messengers to make phone calls free of charge to other users via headsets, other instant messengers started to add the feature.
Choosing which instant messenger to use is therefore much like choosing a mobile phone provider â€“ the ideal instant messenger for individual users will largely be down to how the user perceives the ease of use and reliability of features, how many of their contacts or friends use a particular messenger and how they would like to personalise their messenger. For example, users have recently been able to personalise Skype by adding videos to express their mood. This means the userâ€™s contacts can watch the video, say a goal from a recent football game, while waiting for the user to answer a call or while instant messaging.
Of course, there is nothing stopping users from having several instant messengers installed, or even running a programme like Trillian, that runs several networks at once without having to use several clients. The important thing is to find a messenger that enables a user to be able to get in touch with contacts when they want to and how they want to.
Adam Singleton is an online freelance journalist from Scotland. His hobbies include travelling and hiking.