time I heard of an instant message was in 1994, when an old friend
suggested that we stop blasting e-mail back and forth across America
Online and have a proper online chat. The next night, when I booted
up my Mac at the agreed hour and signed on to AOL, a tiny window
popped up so my friend could say, "Hey." We proceeded to spend two
hours, he in Iowa and I in New York, in what can only be called a
state of Intense I.M.
Seven years later, with Internet connections as necessary as
food, coffee and "Sex and the City" boxed sets for many people, much
of the online world seems to be in a state of Intense I.M. Several
free instant- message programs from competing companies have
appeared. But one thing hamstringing a full-blown communications
revolution is that the people using one service generally find it
impossible to exchange instant messages with people on other
systems. (And that is a big problem — imagine how popular e-mail
would be if people had to have the same Internet service provider to
communicate.) There is a movement afoot to create a fully
interoperable instant-message system, but for now, the services are
still essentially walled off.
Mindful of the balkanization but feeling curious, I downloaded
five of the most popular instant-message programs: AOL Instant
Messenger, ICQ (also from AOL), the MSN Messenger Service from
Microsoft, Yahoo Messenger and Odigo Messenger — onto my I.B.M.
ThinkPad to compare their ease of use and features.
Counterparts to the Buddy List feature popularized by AOL are now
standard in instant-message programs. That lets you create a list of
your friends' online identities and alerts you when your pals are
online and able to get messages. But with all these programs, it is
quickly evident that an instant-message system isn't just for
messages anymore. People are using the software for everything from
virtual conference rooms to electronic dating services.
On most of the programs, you can trade digital photographs and
documents, get a constant stream of news and stock quotations, play
games, hold typed meetings with a group and even place
computer-to-computer phone calls.
I started my comparison test with AOL Instant Messenger, mainly
because I have been using it for years. AOL Instant Messenger has
more than 100 million registered users, and there are versions for
most flavors of Windows, the Macintosh, Linux and other platforms.
All can be downloaded free at www.aol.com/aim/home.html; an AOL
subscription is not required. You can even get AOL instant messages
on a Voice Stream phone, and I have used the service with my
wireless OmniSky modem and Palm organizer when stuck in traffic.
The software, also known as AIM, is powerful yet simple to use.
Like most of the others, it lets users personalize their message
windows with different icons, and messages can be sent in a variety
of fonts and colors. In the latest version for Windows, users can
send greeting cards, send images by dragging and dropping them into
the message window, play online games and transfer files. AOL and
CompuServe customers can keep their screen names when they sign up
for Instant Messenger.
America Online also offers another instant-message service, ICQ,
which itself has more than 100 million registered users and is
available for Windows, Macintosh and the Palm OS from web.icq.com);
there is also a browser-based version for those equipped with Java.
ICQ (as in I Seek You), was developed in Israel and bought by AOL in
1998, but ICQ remains separate from the AIM network, and users
cannot exchange messages between the two systems. ICQ was an early
arrival on the instant-message scene.
The ICQ user interface is a little confusing if you are new to
instant messaging, but the program can communicate with other ICQ
users in many ways. It also lets you send notes outside the ICQ
universe to cell phones and pagers with the text-messaging system
known as Short Message Service.
Moving on to register for Yahoo Messenger, I found myself asked
to fill in fields marked gender and occupation before I could
advance to the software downloading area. I tried to blow by but was
hit with a stern error message: "Gender is a required value.
Occupation is a required value." (I am sure there is a paper on
contemporary American socialization or a post-postmodernism riff in
Yahoo Messenger is available for Windows, Macintosh, Unix and
Linux — along with versions for Java-enabled browsers — as well as
for Palm, Windows CE, mobile phones and RIM pagers at
messenger.yahoo .com. (Yahoo would not say how many users had the
software, but the research firm Jupiter Media Metrix ranked Yahoo
Messenger fourth in worldwide usage in April.)
The setup was easy, and the software itself is simple, but kind
of bland in the design department. The program thoughtfully provided
me with an instant friend, putting a tech- support helper in the
contact-list window. It also keeps a recent history of chats and
makes it easy to send contact information to cohorts on your Friends
Not one to be left out of a software showdown, Microsoft has its
own entry, MSN Messenger, which comes in Windows and Macintosh
flavors at messenger.msn.com. It has some nice features: You can
hold a NetMeeting session (complete with video chat and a virtual
white board) with several people and be notified when Microsoft
releases an update for the program. The message window itself has a
clean design, and unlike the other programs I tried, it is kind
enough to tell you whether your correspondent is currently typing a
message back at you or is idle — and possibly ignoring you.
Microsoft is obviously taking instant messaging very seriously.
Although the number of people using MSN Messenger, about 32 million,
pales in comparison with those using AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ,
things may soon change. The company says it is building an
instant-message program called Windows Messenger directly into its
new operating system, Windows XP, due for release this fall.
While the instant-message systems are generally closed to one
another, a small New York company, Odigo, has been figuring out a
way around this. Its feisty Odigo Messenger program is available for
Windows and Macintosh systems at www.odigo.org.
Depending on the day and the Odigo software version you have, you
can sometimes use Odigo Messenger to communicate with AOL Instant
Messenger users, as well as with Yahoo Messenger and ICQ devotees.
AOL does not like that intrusion, though, and it kept cutting off my
connections with its users and sending me a haughty instant message
that was both punishment and advertising — for its own service.
Odigo and AOL have been playing a bit of a chess game for quite a
while, with Odigo releasing program patches each time AOL blocks
Odigo's users from tapping into its network.
Odigo, which says it has five million registered users, is the
most colorful of all the instant-message programs I tried. The
graphics-heavy control panel is rich with tabs and icons. A feature
called the People Finder creates a sort of chat room, which shows a
random group of other logged-on users, represented by male and
female icons. (The software can be customized to group you with
people matching your interests or background.) I liked Odigo
Messenger quite a bit for its lively approach to the whole
But for now, my top choice is still AOL Instant Messenger because
of its intuitive and functional interface, and the fact that most of
my friends are using it as well. Until these closed systems start
communicating with one another, the message service you pick will
probably depend on whether you are looking for old friends or
Then again, if you're a sociable type, why limit yourself to just
one instant-message program? This reminds me, though, that after
installing all that software, I should probably reboot my ThinkPad
and see whether it is still talking to me.