Chat rooms can be good venues to meet people to discuss topics of mutual interest. But what if you want to chat privately with a friend, family member or business colleague? Then Instant Messaging or IM is the way to go. Many IM services now offer audio and video capabilities, so armed with a microphone and webcam, you can converse and see who you're talking to.
How It Works
Most instant messaging services work similarly. First, you enroll in the service by creating a user name, which is also your screen name, and a password. Next, you build what is known as a buddy list–people that you want to communicate with. When any of your contacts is online, you can initiate a private chat with that person.
How do you know who's online? When you launch your IM software, it connects with the service's IM server and logs you on. The server checks your buddy list to see if any of your contacts are also logged on. Your list updates to show who is currently available. At the same time, your contacts' lists update to indicate that you're online. By clicking on a name you can send text messages to that person (or they can send them to you). After you type your note and click on the Send button, the message travels to the IM server, then immediately forwards to your buddy's computer or mobile device. This all happens almost instantly–that's how this popular form of communication got its name.
With some services, you can also send messages to contacts that are offline. In this case, the message travels to the IM server where it's stored temporarily. Once your buddy logs on, zap–the message travels to his or her computer. It's similar to e-mail.
Too Good to Be True?
IM has become increasingly popular, because it provides users with a free, fast means of communicating. Many businesses use IM as a way to keep in touch with clients and staff in far-flung offices or just down the hall.
Yet IM is not perfect. If you are logged into Snapchat, you cannot talk to friends using Viber or Facebook Messenger. This has been an issue with IM since the early days, when programs like AOL IM and ICQ dominated the market. This separation makes it difficult to keep in touch with all of your friends without maintaining accounts with multiple IM services. Some applications are now available that allow users to manage multiple accounts through one program, but no application can handle all of the current IM services, and many companies prefer to keep their information proprietary.
IM Goes Mobile
With the rise of the cell phones, instantly sending a text message became easier than ever, and logging on to your computer was much more difficult than sending a text. For a brief moment in time, it seemed like instant message might lose its popularity. But with the rise of the smartphone, instant messaging has become more popular than ever.
Smartphones allow users to continue to use their favorite desktop instant messaging services, as well as many brand new smartphone-specific services, directly from their phone, without having to pay to send and receive texts. What’s more, push notifications make it possible to get instantly notified by any of your installed apps, so maintaining multiple IM accounts has become easier than ever.
Increases in smartphone technology and mobile Internet speeds have also made it possible for IM apps to offer much more than just the ability to send and receive text messages. Apps such as WeChat and Viber allow users to share photos, video conference, make free phone calls, find friends near your location, and more.
Today many social networks also provide some type of messaging service, many of which allows users to communicate instantly, in much the same way as instant messaging does. In fact, Facebook Messenger is now a full-fledged instant messaging app that is also integrated with users’ Facebook account, allowing users to chat instantly or send messages to other Facebook members who are offline.
While IM offers businesses a new way to communicate, it poses some problems. First of all, are employees interacting with business associates or gossiping with friends? If it's the latter, productivity may suffer as staff get sucked into time-wasting chats. Even if it's all business, there could be a risk.
Most consumer IM services do not offer secure connections or encryption, so chats can be intercepted. Sensitive business matters should not be discussed using IM. IM users should also be aware that chat sessions can be recorded. How would you react if you discovered that what you thought were private comments had been e-mailed to others or posted on a website? At the very least, it could be embarrassing.
If your business is considering the use of instant messaging, you should consider a business-based IM application, or one that is built into a business intranet solution. This will allow you to restrict access, provide any necessary security measures, and eliminate the potential for employees using it for personal messaging. For communications outside of your company, consider using the telephone, encrypted e-mail, or an encrypted video or teleconferencing service.
Many computers and mobile devices come in IM software preinstalled. If so, you should be able to find it by checking your desktop of reviewing your app list. However, it’s likely you will want to install your own programs. On your mobile device, this can be done my searching for the app in your app store, or doing a general search for instant message. On your computer, you will need to go to the service’s website and download their latest application. Here's where you can go to learn more and download today’s most popular instant messaging programs:
Keep in mind, technology is constantly changing. These represent the most popular instant messaging programs at the time of this writing, so chances are they’ve already changed.
These instant messaging programs are available for most smartphones and desktop operating systems. The pages above will let you know which systems they are compatible with and how to install them for your device. Whichever one you go with, take the time to read the instructions before you begin. It will make IM much more productive and fun.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I communicate with friends on different devices?
Yes. Most instant messaging programs are cross platform, which means they have apps available on a variety of devices and operating systems. So long as there is a version available for your devices, it doesn’t matter if you and your friends are using the same device, you can still communicate with each other. If you or your friends regularly use a device that is not supported, for instance if you prefer to work on your desktop and there is no Windows version available, you should consider using another instant messaging program. There are plenty to choose from!
Can I IM on a non-smartphone?
Some traditional cell phones, including flip phones and sliders, include instant messaging software, which can be used as an alternative to texting. However, because these phones lack the app capabilities of smartphones, you will be much more limited in the variety of IM networks available to you.