What Is 'I.M.' and Instant Messaging?

(AIM, MSN Messenger, ICQ, Google Talk, and Others...)

"IM" – short for “instant messaging” – is a real-time communication service between desktop computers. IM has evolved from the public online chat rooms of the 1990's and 2000's, and become quite sophisticated and very common. IM is even used as productivity software in many companies. Some of the big IM players include Microsoft Lync, Trillian, Brosix, Digsby, AIM, Gtalk, and Nimbuzz.

IM desktop software works somewhat like email and smartphone text messaging, but with the speed of a private chat room. Both parties are online at the same time, and they "talk" to each other by typing text and sending small pictures in instantaneous time.

IM is based on special small programs that two separate people install, and those programs connect to beam typed messages to each other. This special software allows you to message your online friends in other rooms, other cities, and even other countries. The software uses the same cables and network as any web page or email connection. As long as the other person has compatible IM software, IM works very well.

Some IM tools even have "you've got mail" capability, where you can send messages while the other person is offline, and they retrieve it later like email.

For teenagers, IM is a way to break boredom in the school computer lab...provided, of course, that the teacher doesn't shut down the IM connections in the room.

On the downside, many companies do forbid employees from using IM because it can be such a distraction to employees. Thousands of people every day steal time away from work to chat with their friends and co-workers on their screens. On the upside, some organizations do legitimately use this social tool to communicate, like receptionists talking to their bosses on-screen while simultaneously speaking on the phone. Factory workers who wear ear protectors can see on their screen when their supervisor needs them on the other side of the factory floor.

There are varying levels of IM sophistication. Some IM products are bare-bones (example: Google Talk). You can simply send text messages only.

Other IM systems offer advanced options that let you do more than send text messages. It is possible to share photos, send and receive computer files, carry out web searches, listen to the Internet radio stations, play online games, share live video (requires webcam), or even place free PC-to-PC calls worldwide if you have the speaker-and-microphone hardware.

It's very easy to start participating in instant messaging.

Step 1) Choose and Install an IM Software on Your Computer.

  • Option a) Google Talk (bare bones chat only)
  • Option b) MSN Messenger (very popular, very sophisticated)
  • Option c) Yahoo Messenger (also very popular and sophisticated)
  • Option d) AIM (for everyone, not just AOL users)
  • Option e) Trillian (highly recommended; supports nearly all the above choices)

Step 2) Begin Adding "Buddies" to Your Buddy List.

  • You can use regular email or phone to get their email addresses.
  • Ask them to install the same IM client software as you.
  • Use the on-screen menus to "add" these people to your list.

Step 3) Start Sending Messages to Each Other

  • Nothing is easier on the Internet: just click on their name on the screen, start typing, and press enter.
  • Extra features: you will have fun discovering how to send smileys, pictures, and colored font messages.

The most popular instant messaging systems used today are: MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AIM, Google Talk, and ICQ.

Another special IM client, highly praised by the users and techies alike, is Trillian, a fully featured, stand-alone, skinnable chat client that supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, and IRC.

Here is where you can download these products:

Choice 1: MSN Messenger

(very popular; has many features)
Download here.
Microsoft’s own messenger system that is versatile, pretty and used by millions around the globe. You can even send SMS direct from MSN Messenger to your friends' mobile devices!

Choice 2: Yahoo! Messenger

(also very popular, with many features)
Download here.
A feature-laden IM system that makes the chatting a real hoot! If you're a Yahoo! user, you'll have access to all the information you store in your Yahoo profile, including your calendar, address book, and customized news.​

Choice 3: AIM (AOL Instant Messenger)

Download here.
Also known as: AOL Instant Messenger. You don't need to be an America Online subscriber in order to sign-up to download and use AIM.

Choice 4: Google Talk

Download here.
The new kid on the instant messaging block, presently in beta (still being tested) and requires a Gmail username and password. Don't have Gmail? No problem! Send me an email from your current email account, and I will happily send you a Gmail invitation!​

Choice 5: Trillian

(highly recommended for both beginners and advanced users)
Download here.
A one-stop-shop for those who want it all, this IM client is close. Trillian supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, and IRC! Both free and paid (Pro) versions available.

Special thanks to our guest author, Joanna Gurnitsky. Joanna is a Desktop Specialist and Hardware Technologist in Alberta, Canada.