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

11/29/2011 9:08:11 AM
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. 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 (www.aim.com), 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.

AIM, shown in Figure 1, supports all manner of special features in addition to basic text messaging. You get file sharing, RSS feeds, group chats, ability to text message to and from mobile phones, voice chat, video chat, and even a mobile client. You can also enhance the basic AIM experience with a variety of official and user-created plug-ins.

Figure 1. Communicating with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).

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 talk.google.com.

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 talk.google.com and clicking the Launch Google Talk button. With the gadget, there’s no software to download; Google Talk opens in its own small browser window, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Instant messaging with the web-based Google Talk gadget.

If you want increased functionality, such as file transfer, you can download the Google Talk client, which is a separate software program. The main Google Talk client window looks a lot like the Google Talk gadget window; however, if the person you’re chatting with also has the Google Talk client installed, you can send files back and forth between yourselves, using the Send Files button.

Unfortunately, Google Talk isn’t as widely used as competing IM services. I’m not sure why that is, but you’ll definitely want to make sure your friends or coworkers are using Google Talk before you settle on this service for your IM needs.


Google Talk has recently been connected to the AOL Instant Messenger network—so you can now use Google Talk to message with all your AIM buddies, and vice versa.


The granddaddy of all instant messaging programs is ICQ (www.icq.com). 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.


ICQ stands for “I seek you”—say it out loud.

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. With more than 27 million users, Windows Live Messenger is a solid middle-of-the-pack player.


Windows Live Messenger was formally known as both MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger.

Yahoo! Messenger

With more than 90 million users, the most popular instant messenger program today is Yahoo! Messenger, shown in Figure 3. 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-the-minute stock prices, news headlines, sports scores, weather forecasts, and notification of any waiting Yahoo! Mail—all courtesy of the Yahoo! family of services.

Figure 3. Yahoo! Messenger—the most popular instant messaging service today.


Many of the companies that offer web-based productivity applications also offer some form of proprietary instant messaging or chat service; so do most of the web-based desktops. These services, such as Zoho Chat (chat.zoho.com) set up private IM networks between registered users; they don’t work with the major instant messaging services. To that end, these proprietary services are useful for team members collaborating on a project—assuming they’re all using the company’s other cloud services—but not for general IM purposes.

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