Instant Messaging

Most internet users are familiar with e-mail. Indeed, e-mail has been around as long as the internet itself. When sending an e-mail, typically you send a message similar to a letter, then wait for delivery of your message and an eventual reply. Instant messaging is similar, but works more like a telephone conversation. When typing a message into an instant messaging program (often referred to as an instant messaging client), your message is delivered instantly. This allows two people to have a real-time conversation across the internet. This process is similar to chat rooms except instant messaging is usually between two people rather than groups of people.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is a complicated sounding acronym but is actually easy to explain. VOIP software connects two computers on the internet and allows the users to speak to each other using a compatible headset. You can think of it as a internet telephone.

Webcams are small cameras that usually sit on top of your PC monitor. Often the pictures they take do not get sent to the web at all, instead they are transmitted across the internet to friends, family or contacts. If your internet connection is up to it, a webcam will allow you to see your friends as you chat to them, like a video-phone. Keep in mind that video quality when using a webcam will almost always be low-resolution, even on broadband internet connections. This is due to the large amounts of data that must be transferred for live full-motion video.

To conduct a conversation using instant messaging, you first need to install a compatible instant messaging program on your computer. Then, the person you wish to chat to must do the same on his or her computer. There are several different types of IM program available on the internet, but while they all do the same job, IM software from one company is generally not compatible with IM software from another company. So, for example, a user who installs Windows Live Messenger will not be able to communicate with a user who is using AOL instant messenger, although there is nothing to stop you installing more than one IM program onto your computer.

During the installation of your chosen IM software, you will be required to set up a screen name, or number. Now all you need to do is exchange this name/number with your contact. Once you have done that and entered your friends details into your IM software, you will be able to communicate. Typically, IM software requires a central server which relays messages between clients. It is worth remembering that most IM software does not include any encryption by default and it is not a good idea to send sensitive information by IM without encrypting it first.

There are several different instant messaging services in use on the internet. The one that people choose to use is usually determined by what their friends are using. The major IM providers are:-

All the above allow the use of instant messaging by text and voice and they all support webcams. Users of Windows Live Messenger can now also talk to users on Yahoo messenger, and vice versa. Skype was designed from the ground-up to be a VOIP program and as such it has the best support for VOIP. Skype users can even buy credits that let them call regular telephones through their internet connection.

Windows users are used to being spoilt for choice when it comes to software and IM software is no different. However, running two or even three different IM programs is inconvenient and wastes computer resources. Because of this, ingenious computer programmers have come up with IM software that allows you to connect to several networks at once. There are several programs that let you do this now, but we believe the best three are:-

The biggest disadvantage of using the multi-protocol instant messaging programs is that they are usually behind the official IM programs in terms of features supported. For example, many of the multi-protocol IM programs listed above do not support voice or webcams, or their support is limited compared to the official IM clients.