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Monday, February 26, 2001
Lead Article

Make it instant, please
By Kuljit Bains

IT'S fast, itís free, goes across the globe. All sure-shot ingredients of a hit Internet snack. But today itís getting to be a full meal by itself, and is being called the "killer app(lication)." Itís IM (instant messaging for the uninitiated).

Killer it isóby 2002 its expected to have one billion victims who wonít be able to survive without it, just as we canít today without a phone.

Now just what is it? Well, itís just the electronic version of kids passing bits of paper with quick messages around a classroom. Only that its users now include the biggest corporates and the messages can be sent anywhere in the world.

At the user end, you have a small software that allows you to login and let the friends and associates you have previously named to be intimated that you are online; in turn, it also lets you know who of your friends in the "buddy list" are online. You can now enter a private chat with the buddy you wantóthis chat is just typing out quick messages and sending them and receiving responses from the other end immediately, you might call it e-mail made snail mail.

Technically speaking, a client connects to a central server that verifies his identity and registers him as "online." When another user connects and registers, he will get to know that you are online because the server will tell him so. This is when IM starts.

Interested? You can download the required software free of cost from any number of competitors (click for a list). The downloads are small and donít take up much space on your hard disk.


Making life easy

You might wonder whatís so great about sending a message and getting a response, whatís all this hype about. Well, the uses of IM are limited only by your imagination.

To begin with, being in touch with your friends is one. You can have a "live" spontaneous chat, as opposed to a thought-out structured e-mail, at no cost across the high seas. The system lets you know when your friend is online, so no chance of a buddy being "out of sight, out of mind." And friends are not the only ones; your kid in college can keep in touch with you (and his girlfriend) without demolishing his budget.

For business, this innovation has been a boon. Executives can hold instant meetings with the participants being spread out across the city or even the world. Apart from saving on costs and time, the participants donít have to leave the support of their offices and so can hold more meaningful conferences. Travelling executives can keep in touch, too, for not only can you "talk," you can also send data files. A good example of IM use in office: you want to ask someone a phone number or fix a time for a physical meeting, but donít want to go to his cubicle or give him a ring because he has a visitor. You send him an IM that blinks discretely on his monitor and he gives you just the information you neededóyou have had an unobtrusive bit of specific instant communication.

Telecommuters (people working from home over the Net) are another category that "just canít survive" without IM, for they need to be in constant touch with their employer or clients.

The rap gang can even swap MP3 files or photos, or for that matter any kind of data file.

One very attractive use is voice communicationóat least with people in the USA, and we have plenty of acquaintances out there. Most of the IM software offer a feature that allows you to get into voice communication with the person you are "chatting" to. You can even dial a phone in the USA through your IM system and the other person is not even required to have a computer in this case. The best part is all this is over the Internet, so the cost is almost not worth considering. This is being used extensively even in India, the poor bandwidth notwithstanding.

These are all advantages of only text-based communication. But there is more to it. Most IM services offer features like calendar, news, chat rooms, weather information, etc.

As said earlier, the applications are limited only by imagination. I floated the question on its uses in a public chat room, and one of the answers was, "for drug trafficking!" Well, weíll just leave it at business.

The pitfalls

They say anything thatís perfect becomes boring, so we have a few pitfalls in IM, too. When you get too spontaneous in your chatting, you are likely to make unguarded, loose statements, which might lead to misunderstandings. This is particularly so for youngsters, who tend to get a bit overboard when on the Web.

Getting a message from a not-so-welcome an acquaintance just when you are deeply involved in some special project at work could be distracting or you may simply may not have the time for him. But, fortunately, there is a solution to this. Most of the IM software give you the option of showing your status as "offline," "busy," "away," "on phone," etc.

Another pitfall could be your own weakness. IM being what it is, a lot of people just cannot keep away from it and waste far too much time on it with no real purpose. Again, youngsters are the particular sufferers of this ailment. This gave IM a bad name in a lot of workplaces initially. Though now most offices see that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Manners are essential

Just so these pitfalls donít spoil the fun, we must observe IM etiquette. I f someoneís status is shown as "away" or "busy," avoid sending messages till they are back. Donít pile up undelivered messages in his box. Even when you do begin a chat, always ask if the person at the other end has the time and inclination. Be careful in the choice of your words for they are all that are going across, unlike a phone where your words have the advantage of intonation and the feel of your mood, which make the communication clearer. Donít drag on a chat or even begin one if there is no real need. Maybe for mannersí sake you could say Hi! to a friend when he logs on and then just say goodbye. You donít have to chat just because a "buddy" is online. After all, your phone is always there and so is it with your friends, but you donít keep calling.

Technical gaps

Till now we talked about all that was nice and sweet about IM. But there is more to it. The various software available donít talk to each other. This means that the person you want to chat with should have the same software as you. It sounds ridiculous for this fantastic a concept to be spoiled by this little technical detail. The reason is that the industry has to have a common standard for the IM architecture. This can easily be done if all IT houses involved agree, but thatís where the catch lies. They do not. The stakes involved are high as through the IM software a company is able to attract more eyeballs (audience for the layman), which they feel can at some stage be somehow converted into profit. Every big player wants to be the sole surviving IM service provider. The leaders in the dispute are obviously Microsoft and AOL (America Online).

The other irritant, though minor, is valid for Indiaóless bandwidth. IM depends on fast transfer of data, particularly if you want to transfer files also or enter voice communication. But the essential IM is already going strong in India; moreover, bandwidth is improving here too.

Which one is for me

Made aware of the cross-software problem (inter-operability), you might wonder which software should you go for. The essential thing is your friend has to have the same IM system as you, so it will be good for you to have the one that most of your friends have. How do you know that? Or how can all friends have the same system? This is the mad part. To overcome this problem, most people use more than one system. If you want to be able to communicate with everyone, get every system availableóHa! just joking, but thatís what this whole thing is, a joke.

All the same, it might help to know that most Americans use the two AOL systems (which donít talk to each other also!)óAIM and ICQ. But in India most seem to use the Yahoo! and Microsoft systems (though this is based only on a casual survey).


Now this is a sensitive spot. IM, some say, is the equivalent of talk at the water cooler in office. Most IM service providers advise not to give out passwords or credit card numbers while messaging. At some stage maybe things change, but right now it is what it was supposed to beóan instant, casual way of communicating.

Future of IM

The concept is just getting off the block yet. Much more is to comeóstreaming voice chat, instant virtual communities, video, et al. IM is to e-mail what e-mail was to snail (simple) mail. So there might some reduction in e-mailing as IM catches on. But when you talk of IT, anybodyís guess is just as good.


To talk or not to talk

Instant messaging is all exciting but the lack of interoperability (inability of one IM system to talk to another) is like putting a speed governor on a new BMW. Its equivalent would be like people using the phone of one company not being able to speak to those subscribing to another. Why this?

Because every player in the IM market wants the whole pie, particularly those who have a lead, like America Online (AOL). Itís the largest Internet service provider (ISP) in the USA and as a result has access to the largest mass of Internet users. AOL also had the early-entry advantage and itís messaging system AIM, along with itís subsidiary ICQ, has captured 80 per cent of the IM users. Microsoft does not like this. Apart from IM it also has ambitions of being a leading ISP.

Now that the IM lead is with AOL, Microsoft wants to neutralise it by demanding that all IM systems should follow a common standard that might be developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The moment this happens, people will not be "forced" to use the AOL system as it would not matter what system their "buddies" are using.

AOL, not one to take it lying down, argues that with a common code the security would be compromised and problems like spamming (flooding a particular mail account) would gain ugly proportions. Experts in the field have serious doubts about this, though.

A setback that AOL has faced recently is that its merger with Time Warner (considered by some to be the biggest monopoly move in recent times) was okayed only with a rider by the (US) Federal Communications Commission ó that before any enhancement in its IM service it will have to make a positive move towards interoperability.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has teamed up with AT&T (a communications giant), Excite@Home, Odigo, Phone.com, Prodigy, and Yahoo! to form a group called IMUnified to work for its cause of interoperability between various IM systems floating in the cyber market. They are trying to come up with a unified standard of their own, of which they came out with an initial draft earlier this year.

In a separate bout of mud wrestling, Microsoft has tried to break into the AOL system more than 10 times to make it possible for users of its IM system MSN Messenger to get through to people using AIM. While the biggies battle it out in the courts and cyber arena, it is expected that the public pressure for the convenience of a common system is what would prevail and force everybody to toe the line, sooner or later. ó KB

IM systems at a glance

Messenger name Download site
AOL IM www.aol.com/aim/home.html
Excite Pal http://talk.excite.com/communities/excite/pal/
ICQ http://www.mirabilis.com/icqme.html
Microsoft Messenger http://messenger.msn.com/
Microsoft Netmeeting www.microsoft.com/netmeeting/
PeopleLink www.peoplelink.com
Yahoo! Pager http://pager.yahoo.com/
Odigo www.odigo.com