Communication is important to most people. Since the late 1990s, Instant Messaging (IM) has become an increasingly popular way to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Though history traces IM's origins back to Internet Relay Chat (IRC),
it is very different now with new protocols, video messaging, file sharing, and more. We'll be covering the most-used mainstream IM clients and services so that you can decide who's using what and which one you should use.
Estimated User Base: 53 million active users
Available for: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and others
About: AOL has clearly taken IM by storm in the past 10 years. The overwhelming popularity of AOL's online services prompted the company to release a strictly IM client called AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM. The current version of AIM for Windows XP allows video chat, voice chat, file sharing, multiple buddy lists, and lots of other features. This service is the most popular and has the biggest user base out of any of the other clients and services listed. It's easy to use, fun, and is a great way to keep in touch with your friends. Multiple clients are available such as iChat for Mac OS X and Gaim for Linux.
Estimated User Base: 21 million active users
Available for: Windows, Mac OS, Linux/UNIX
About: Yahoo! allows you to use your current Yahoo! ID to sign in and chat with other people using their Yahoo! Messenger client. Their service is complete with fancy emoticons, live video chat, file transfers and more. Their client is more robust and a bit fancier-looking than other services such as AIM, but the user base is not as large. The GUI for the Yahoo! IM client is very friendly and is probably the best choice for younger audiences looking to chat with friends. Yahoo! has also made it very easy to share photos and pictures via IM, which pleases many users. You can also use themes to reflect your taste and/or mood with a feature called "IMVironments." Overall, Yahoo! Messenger is a very good client that's well worth checking out. Version 8, the latest version of Yahoo! includes Voice and allows third party developers to create "Widgets" that work with the new messenger. You can also IM with those using MSN Messenger and Windows Live.
Estimated User Base: Unknown – still in beta testing
Available for: Windows, Blackberry OS
About: The search company that almost everyone loves has a new IM service in beta testing called Google Talk, or Gtalk for short. Gtalk's main focus is allowing you to make phone calls to other users for free using the Gtalk application. Your friends must be using Gtalk as well to be able to receive and send calls to you, so Google will automatically import your Gmail contacts into the program for you to browse through. The interface isn't that much fun to look at, though, and is very bleak and dismal. The service is not feature-rich and does not include the ability to use icons, send files, or video chat. However, a Blackberry OS version has been developed, which makes it a great and free alternative to other third-party IM clients available for Blackberry. If you know enough people using Gmail and/or Gtalk, give it a try. Otherwise, go for something a little more mainstream.
Estimated User Base: 15 million active users, 400 million total registered
Available for: Windows, Mac OS, Linux/UNIX, and more
About: This program with a clever name (I Seek You!) has been around since 1996 and is touted as the first true stand-alone IM client to have features like a buddy list and chat room abilities. It has since become part of the AOL Time Warner family, but is not as heavily advertised as AIM is. It's available for a slew of operating systems out there, including mobile phones and Symbian OS, making it a popular choice for people on the go. ICQ sports lots of nice features that make it attractive. These features include—but aren't limited to—spell checking file transfers, push-to-talk (PTT) service, video messaging, and e-mail integration. ICQ has lots of fun things built in as well, such as birthday reminders and games. Though not as popular as other services, ICQ is sure to please anyone looking for a cross-platform IM service.
Estimated User Base: 29 million active users
Available for: Windows, Mac OS, and more
About: Microsoft's IM offering is known as MSN Messenger. For part of their MSN network you have to have a Microsoft "Passport" service, such as Hotmail, to use the messenger. The features are pretty run-of-the-mill: there's video chat, voice chat, emoticons, and more. MSN Messenger also features a search function that allows you to search within an IM to find something you're interested in. You can then take whatever you're looking for and do a web search on it without opening a browser window – a nice, simple feature that other IM clients don't normally have. Currently, MSN is the only IM service that is heavily targeted at business use. Their Mac client is lacking, though, and only supports a handful of features, unlike the Windows counterpart.
Estimated User Base: Estimated 14 million active users
Available for: Windows, Mac OS, Linux/UNIX, and more
About: Released in 2000 to the public, Jabber is an open-source IM protocol used by many clients, including iChat and Gtalk. It works very differently than other IM clients available today by allowing anyone to run a Jabber server. This means there is no centralized location for logging in. Because of this, Jabber is able to communicate with multiple IM services at once, such as AIM, MSN, and others. Jabber is by no means intended for someone just getting familiar with IM, but can be very powerful and useful to those who are familiar with its inner-workings.
Estimated User Base: Unknown
Available for: Mac OS X
About: iChat is Apple's IM client that sports a good-looking aqua interface and design. The client allows users to chat with .Mac users, AIM users, and Jabber users. iChat can also be used to talk to other Mac users on a home network. The interface is extremely easy to use and is very fluid. Pictures can be dragged and dropped into IM windows for easy photo sharing, and video chat is available with the click of a single button. It is limited in some ways, however, such as exclusive Mac OS X use and not having a themes feature. An interesting detail of iChat is the ability to have a multi-person video chat with up to 4 users simultaneously in a single room. iChat provides a very nice client that integrates perfectly with OS X. Mac users who are big on AIM should give this a try.