Suddenly instant messaging is everywhere. The ability to send tiny messages instantly to another person or small group has been available on America Online for many years. The AOL feature lets you find out if someone is online – if they’ve agreed to be "seen" – and enables you to send them a short text message in something approximating real time – if they’ve chosen to accept such messages.
Without much warning or reason, instant messaging has proliferating on the Internet. Command-line Unix users could always use the talk command and its variants for this purpose; and, later, talk migrated to the graphical world of the Mac and Windows. But talk wasn’t tied in with address books, notifications, offline queuing, or graphical whizziness (or WYSIWYG-ness).
The modern Internet instant messaging application first started appearing just as a sub-feature of Internet telephony. For Internet phone calling to be worthwhile, you need to be able to find out if someone’s actually online before placing the call. Despite the hoopla, Internet phoning hasn’t turned into The Next Big Thing yet (but give it time).
Instant messaging is much more sensible, however, in that it only requires the ability to send and receive short text messages. It’s a cross between the asynchronous nature of email and the sometimes annoying immediacy of a phone call. It’s taking off now given both the size of the audience and the increasing amount of time individuals spend online.
Netscape signed a partnership deal with America Online to distribute "Netscape AOL Instant Messenger," which is also bundled with the Communicator 4.04 release. Apparently, it’s available only for Windows 95 and 3.1 users. You can download it separately as well.
There’s also LiveList – in beta for Windows 95/NT – which is a product of OnLive! and partnered with the Four11 directory service. PeopleLink is out for Macintosh and Windows, and is the choice of Well Engaged, a service that builds community/discussion sites. iChat also offers "pager" software for Windows 95/NT and Macintosh.
Of course, none of these systems are interchangeable – each has its own list and system. Some allow you to connect with multiple people; others are mano-a-mano. Some let you login and automatically notify a list of people that you’re online. Some will queue messages while you’re offline, delivering them when you reappear. All of them convey short text messages back and forth, but some can convey attachments, too.
The real question is: where do you want to be reached today? One of the reasons I like email so much is that I have the flexibility of answering it when I choose. An instant message is – by definition – less ignorable because it’s happening right now.