Collaborating via Web- Based Communication Tools: Evaluating Instant Messaging Services

Email is just one way to communicate online. For many users, instant messaging is a better way to talk; it’s more immediate, because you can send text messages in real time to your friends and coworkers. No more waiting for people to respond to your emails—when both parties are online at the same time, it’s just like having a one-on-one conversation! Technology-wise, email works a little differently from most Internet applications— and quite different from the cloud services i have discussed in other posts. Email (both web based and POP), Usenet, and the World Wide Web operate via a traditional client/server model, with most of the heavy lifting done via a network of dedicated servers. For example, your POP email is stored on and managed by an email server, while all the pages on the web are hosted on millions of individual web servers. Instant messaging, however, doesn’t use servers at all. When you send an instant message to another user, that message goes directly to that user’s PC; it’s not filtered by or stored on any servers.

The technical name for this type of connection is peer-to-peer (P2P), because the two computers involved are peers to each other. All instant messaging needs to work is a piece of client software (one for each computer involved, of course) and the IP addresses of each computer. The messages go directly from one IP address to another, with no servers in the middle to slow things down. (Naturally, the data must still make its way through numerous routers to get to the other PC, but that’s part and parcel of any Internet-based application.)
There are several big players in the instant messaging market today, including America Online (with both AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ), Google (Google Talk), Microsoft (Windows Live Messenger), and Yahoo! (Yahoo! Messenger). Unfortunately, most of these products don’t work well (or at all) with each other. If you’re using Yahoo! Messenger, for example, you can’t communicate with someone running AOL Instant Messenger. That means you’ll want to use the IM program that all your friends and coworkers are using—so find that out before you download any software.

AOL Instant Messenger:
The most-used instant messaging program is AOL Instant Messenger (, also known as AIM. AOL claims more than 60 million users, which makes it the number-two IM service today, second only to Yahoo! Messenger. For whatever reason, AIM is especially popular among the teen and preteen crowd, although people of all ages can and do use it.

Google Talk:

Google Talk is the name of both Google’s instant messaging network and its IM client. You can download the Google Talk client and learn more about the Google Talk network at You can access Google Talk from a web-based Google Talk gadget, a standalone Google Talk client program (similar to what’s offered by both AIM and Yahoo! Messenger), or from your Gmail and iGoogle web pages. As with competing IM systems, Google Talk lets you send and receive both text-based instant messages and Voice over IP (VoIP) Internet phone calls. Most people will use Google Talk via the web-based Google Talk “gadget.” You launch the Google Talk gadget by going to and clicking the Launch Google Talk button. With the gadget, there’s no software to download;


The granddaddy of all instant messaging programs is ICQ ( ICQ was birthed by a company named Mirabilis back in 1996, but was acquired by America Online in 1998. Today, AOL maintains ICQ and AIM as separate programs—so separate that ICQ users can’t talk to AIM users, or vice versa. Like most other IM programs, ICQ is totally free. You also get grouped conversations, voice messaging, photo viewing, and other state-of-the-art features.

Windows Live Messenger:

Not surprisingly, Microsoft is a major participant in the instant messaging market. The program currently known as Windows Live Messenger does all the main things AIM and Yahoo! Messenger do, including voice chat and the ability to page a contact’s mobile phone.

Yahoo! Messenger:

With more than 90 million users, the most popular instant messenger program today is
Yahoo! Messenger. In addition to traditional text messaging, Yahoo! Messenger features voice and video messaging, PC-to-phone and PC-to-PC calling, voicemail, file sharing, and chat rooms. It also lets you receive up-to-theminute stock prices, news headlines, sports scores, weather forecasts, and notification of any waiting Yahoo! Mail—all courtesy of the Yahoo! family of services.

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