Instant messaging

Web Design & Development Guide

Instant messaging


Instant messaging (IM) is a form of real-time communication between two or more people based on typed text. The text is conveyed via computers connected over a network such as the Internet.


Instant messaging requires an instant messaging client that connects to an instant messaging service. Instant messaging differs from e-mail in that conversations happen in real-time. A multiprotocol instant messaging application allows one client to connect to multiple IM networks.

Instant messaging services owe many ideas to an older and still popular online chat medium named Internet Relay Chat (IRC). In early instant messaging programs, each letter appeared when it was typed, and when letters were deleted to correct typos this was also seen in real time. This made it more like a telephone conversation than exchanging letters. In modern instant messaging programs, the other party in the conversation generally only sees each line of text right after a new line is started. Most instant messaging applications also include the ability to set a status message, roughly analogous to the message on a telephone answering machine.

In early instant messaging programs each character appeared when it was typed. The UNIX "talk" command shown in these screenshots was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In early instant messaging programs each character appeared when it was typed. The UNIX "talk" command shown in these screenshots was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Instant messaging offers real-time communication and allows easy collaboration, which might be considered more akin to genuine conversation than email's "letter" format. In contrast to e-mail, the parties know whether the peer is available. Most systems allow the user to set an online status or away message so peers are notified when the user is available, busy, or away from the computer. On the other hand, people are not forced to reply immediately to incoming messages. For this reason, some people consider communication via instant messaging to be less intrusive than communication via phone. However, not all popular systems allow the sending of messages to people not currently logged on (offline messages), thus removing much of the difference between IM and email.

Instant messaging allows instantaneous communication between a number of parties simultaneously, by transmitting information quickly and efficiently, featuring immediate receipt of acknowledgment or reply. In certain cases IM involves additional features, which make it even more popular, i.e. to see the other party, e.g. by using web-cams, or to talk directly for free over the internet.

It is possible to save a conversation for later reference. Instant messages typically are may be logged in a local message history which closes the gap to the persistent nature of e-mails and facilitates quick exchange of information like URLs or document snippets (which can be unwieldy when communicated via telephone).


A screenshot of PowWow, one of the first  instant messengers with a graphical user interface
A screenshot of PowWow, one of the first instant messengers with a graphical user interface

Instant messaging applications began to appear in the 1970s on multi-user operating systems like UNIX, initially to facilitate communication with other users logged in to the same machine, then on the local network, and subsequently across the Internet. Some of these used a peer-to-peer protocol (eg talk, ntalk and ytalk), while others required peers to connect to a server. Because all of these protocols were based inside a console window, most of those discovering the Internet in the mid-1990s and equating it with the web tended not to encounter them.

In the last half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the Quantum Link online service for Commodore 64 computers offered user-to-user messages between currently connected customers which they called "On-Line Messages" (or OLM for short). Quantum Link's better known later incarnation, America Online, offers a similar product under the name "AOL Instant Messages" (AIM). While the Quantum Link service ran on a Commodore 64, using only the Commodore's PETSCII text-graphics, the screen was visually divided up into sections and OLMs would appear as a yellow bar saying "Message From:" and the name of the sender along with the message across the top of whatever the user was already doing, and presented a list of options for responding.[1] As such, it could be considered a sort of GUI, albeit much more primitive than the later Unix, Windows and Macintosh based GUI IM programs. OLMs were what Q-Link called "Plus Services" meaning they charged an extra per-minute fee on top of the monthly Q-Link access costs.

Modern, Internet-wide, GUI-based messaging clients, as they are known today, began to take off in the mid 1990s with ICQ (1996) being the first, followed by AOL Instant Messenger (AOL Instant Messenger, 1997). AOL later acquired Mirabilis, the creators of ICQ. A few years later ICQ (by now owned by AOL) was awarded two patents for instant messaging by the U.S. patent office. Meanwhile, other companies developed their own applications (Yahoo, MSN, Excite, Ubique, IBM), each with its own proprietary protocol and client; users therefore had to run multiple client applications if they wished to use more than one of these networks.

In 2000, an open source application and open standards-based protocol called Jabber was launched. Jabber servers could act as gateways to other IM protocols, reducing the need to run multiple clients. Modern multi-protocol clients such as Pidgin, Trillian, Adium and Miranda can use any of the popular IM protocols without the need for a server gateway.

Recently, many instant messaging services have begun to offer video conferencing features, Voice Over IP (VoIP) and web conferencing services. Web conferencing services integrate both video conferencing and instant messaging capabilities. Some newer instant messaging companies are offering desktop sharing, IP radio, and IPTV to the voice and video features.

The term "instant messenger" is a service mark of Time Warner[2] and may not be used in software not affiliated with AOL in the United States. For this reason, the instant messaging client formerly known as Gaim or gaim announced in April 2007 that they would be renamed "Pidgin"[3].


There have been several attempts to create a unified standard for instant messaging: IETF's SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions), APEX (Application Exchange), Prim (Presence and Instant Messaging Protocol), the open XML-based XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), more commonly known as Jabber and OMA's (Open Mobile Alliance) IMPS (Instant Messaging and Presence Service) created specifically for mobile devices.

Most attempts at creating a unified standard for the major IM providers (AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft) have failed and each continues to use its own proprietary protocol.

However, while discussions at IETF were stalled, Reuters head of collaboration services, David Gurle (the founder of Microsoft's Real Time Communication and Collaboration business), surprised everybody by signing the first inter-service provider connectivity agreement on September 2003. This historic agreement enabled AIM, ICQ and MSN Messenger users to talk with Reuters Messaging counterparts and vice-versa against an access fee. Following this breakthrough agreement between networks Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL came to a deal where Microsoft's Live Communication Server 2005 (which is interestingly also used by Reuters for its Reuters Messaging service) users would also have the possibility to talk to public instant messaging users. This deal settled once for all the protocol for interconnectivity in the market as SIP/SIMPLE and established a connectivity fee for accessing public instant messaging clouds. Separately, on October 13, 2005 Microsoft and Yahoo! announced that by (the Northern Hemisphere) summer of 2006 they would interoperate using SIP/SIMPLE which is followed on December 2005 by the AOL and Google strategic partnership deal where Google Talk users would be able to talk with AIM and ICQ users provided they have an identity at AOL.

There are two ways to combine the many disparate protocols:

  1. One way is to combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM client application.
  2. The other way is to combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM server application. This approach moves the task of communicating to the other services to the server. Clients need not know or care about other IM protocols. For example, LCS 2005 Public IM Connectivity. This approach is popular in Jabber/XMPP servers however the so-called transport projects suffer the same reverse engineering difficulties as any other project involved with closed protocols or formats.

Some approaches, such as that adopted by the Sonork enterprise IM software or the Jabber/XMPP network or Winpopup LAN Messenger, allow organizations to create their own private instant messaging network by enabling them to limit access to the server (often with the IM network entirely behind their firewall) and administer user permissions. Other corporate messaging systems allow registered users to also connect from outside the corporation LAN, by using a secure firewall-friendly HTTPS based protocol. Typically, a dedicated corporate IM server has several advantages such as pre-populated contact lists, integrated authentication, and better security and privacy.

Some networks have made changes to prevent them from being utilized by such multi-network IM clients. For example, Trillian had to release several revisions and patches to allow its users to access the MSN, AOL, and Yahoo! networks, after changes were made to these networks. The major IM providers typically cite the need for formal agreements as well as security concerns as reasons for making these changes.

Mobile Instant Messaging

Mobile Instant Messaging (MIM) is a presence enabled messaging service that aims to transpose the desktop messaging experience to the usage scenario of being on the move. While several of the core ideas of the desktop experience on one hand apply to a connected mobile device, others do not: Users usually only look at their phone's screen — presence status changes might occur under different circumstances as happens at the desktop, and several functional limits exist based on the fact that the vast majority of mobile communication devices are chosen by their users to fit into the palm of their hand.

Some of the form factor and mobility related differences need to be taken into account in order to create a really adequate, powerful and yet convenient mobile experience: radio bandwidth, memory size, availability of media formats, keypad based input, screen output, CPU performance and battery power are core issues that desktop device users and even nomadic users with connected notebooks are usually not exposed to.

Several formerly untackled issues have been identified and addressed within IMPS, which was developed as part of an early mobile telephone industry initiative to kick off a broader usage of mobile instant messaging. The Open Mobile Alliance has taken over this standard, formerly called Wireless Village, as IMPS V1.0 in November 2002. Since then this standards has been further developed to IMPS V1.3, the latest candidate for release, and is expected to be released before the end of 2006.

There are downloadable mobile applications offered by different independent developers that allow users to chat within public (MSN, Yahoo! , Google Talk, AIM, ICQ) and corporate (LCS, Sametime, Reuters) IM services from mobile devices.

Among the advantages of using such IM clients over SMS are: IM clients use data instead of SMS text messages; IM-like chat mode, faster and quicker messaging. Some IM software allows group communication.

Several large scale mobile telephone industry companies are planning to jointly deliver a ubiquitous, interoperable presence enabled messaging service, built according to interoperability recommendations developed in the GSM Association.[4] Considering these organisations are jointly representing approximately 1.5 billion active Short Text Messaging (SMS) users, it remains to be seen if such an initiative may also help to drive the different industry factions to agree on a truly interoperable approach at least for Mobile Instant Messaging sometime in the not too far future.

In the meantime, other developments have proposed usage of downloadable applications with the intention to create their own approach to IM that runs on most mobile phones worldwide. Essentially, several of these clients are Java applications are instantly downloaded and then connected to back-end servers through GPRS/3G Internet Channels. Some of the implementations can connect to other IM services.

Effects on people with an auditory or speech disability

Instant messaging opens new methods of spontaneous communication for people that have an impairment in hearing, auditory processing, or speech. It is considered by many a powerful way to allow equal opportunities in communication, without the aid of special devices or services designed for users with hearing loss.

Friend-to-friend networks

Instant Messaging may be done in a Friend-to-friend network, in which each node connects to the friends on the friendslist. This allows to communicate to friends of friends and build chatrooms for instant messages with all friends on that network.

Business application

Instant messaging has proven to be similar to personal computers, e-mail, and the WWW, in that its adoption for use as a business communications medium was driven primarily by individual employees using consumer software at work, rather than by formal mandate or provisioning by corporate information technology departments. Tens of millions of the consumer IM accounts in use are being used for business purposes by employees of companies and other organizations.

In response to the demand for business-grade IM and the need to ensure security and legal compliance, a new type of instant messaging, called "Enterprise Instant Messaging" ("EIM") was created when Lotus Software launched Lotus Sametime in 1999. Microsoft followed suit shortly thereafter with Microsoft Exchange Instant Messaging, and later created a new platform called Microsoft Office Live Communications Server. Since then, both IBM Lotus and Microsoft have introduced federation between their EIM systems and some of the public IM networks thus employees may use a single interface to both their internal EIM system and their buddies on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo!. Current leading EIM platforms include IBM Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server, and Jabber XCP.

The adoption of IM across corporate networks outside of the control of IT organizations creates many risks and liabilities for companies who do not effectively manage and support IM use. Companies implement specialized IM archiving and security products and services like those from Secure Computing, Akonix, Surfcontrol, and ScanSafe to mitigate these risks and provide safe, secure, productive instant messaging capabilities to their employees.

On the other hand, the informal usage of instant messaging by the younger generation has also affected the quality of messages as these youngsters adapt the habits that they are used to in instant messaging into the workplace. The tendency to mis-spell, the use of informal language, emoticons and the shortening of longer or commonly used words whilst casual chatting online with friends might unconsciously seep into the more formal and serious conversations in the workplace. Although instant messaging has made it more convenient for faster relaying of messages, certain guidelines and etiquette rules should be observed to fully utilise the usability of this important tool.

Risks and liabilities

Although instant messaging delivers many benefits, it also carries with it certain risks and liabilities, particularly when used in workplaces, although there are not that many at all. Among these are:

  • Security risks (e.g. IM used to infect computers with spyware, viruses, trojans, worms)
  • Compliance risks
  • Inappropriate use
  • Intellectual property leakage

Hackers' use of instant messaging networks to deliver malicious code has grown consistently from 2004 to the present, with the number of discrete attacks listed by the IM Security Center[5] having grown 15% from 347 attacks in 2005 to 406 in 2006. Hackers use two methods of delivering malicious code through IM: delivery of virus, trojan, or spyware within an infected file, and the use of "socially engineered" text with a web address that entices the recipient to click on a URL that connects him or her to a website that then downloads malicious code. Viruses, worms, and trojans typically propagate by sending themselves rapidly through the infected user's buddy list. An effective attack using a "poison URL" may reach tens of thousands of people in minutes when each person's buddy list receives messages appearing to be from a trusted friend. The recipients click on the web address, and the entire cycle starts again. Infections may range from nuisance to criminal, and are becoming more sophisticated each year.

In addition to the malicious code threat, the use of instant messaging at work also creates a risk of non-compliance to laws and regulations governing the use of electronic communications in businesses. In the United States alone there are over 10,000 laws and regulations related to electronic messaging and records retention.[6] The more well-known of these include the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, HIPAA, and SEC 17a-3. Recent changes to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, effective December 1, 2006, create a new category for electronic records which may be requested during discovery (law) in legal proceedings. Most countries around the world also regulate the use of electronic messaging and electronic records retention in similar fashion to the United States. The most common regulations related to IM at work involve the need to produce archived business communications to satisfy government or judicial requests under law. Many instant messaging communications fall into the category of business communications that must be archived and retrievable.

Organizations of all types must protect themselves from the liability of their employees' inappropriate use of IM. The informal, immediate, and ostensibly anonymous nature of instant messaging makes it a candidate for abuse in the workplace. The topic of inappropriate IM use became front page news in October 2006 when Congressman Mark Foley resigned his seat after admitting sending offensive instant messages of a sexual nature to underage former House pages from his Congressional office PC. The Mark Foley Scandal led to media coverage and mainstream newspaper articles warning of the risks of inappropriate IM use in workplaces. In most countries, corporations have a legal responsibility to ensure harassment-free work environment for employees. The use of corporate-owned computers, networks, and software to harass an individual or spread inappropriate jokes or language creates a liability for not only the offender but also the employer. A survey by IM archiving and security provider Akonix Systems, Inc. in March 2007 showed that 31% of respondents had been harassed over IM at work.[7] Companies now include instant messaging as an integral component of their policies on appropriate use of the World Wide Web, email, and other corporate assets.

Security and archiving

In the early 2000s, a new class of IT security provider emerged to provide remedies for the risks and liabilities faced by corporations who chose to use IM for business communications. The IM security providers created new products to be installed in corporate networks for the purpose of archiving, content-scanning, and security-scanning IM traffic moving in and out of the corporation. Similar to the e-mail filtering vendors, the IM security providers focus on the risks and liabilities described above.

With rapid adoption of IM in the workplace, demand for IM security products began to grow in the mid-2000s. By 2007, the preferred platform for the purchase of security software had become the "appliance", according to IDC, who estimate that by 2008, 80% of network security products will be delivered via an appliance.[8]

User base

Note that many of the numbers listed in this section are not directly comparable, and some are speculative. Some instant messaging systems are distributed among many different instances and thus difficult to measure in total (e.g. Jabber). While some numbers are given by the owners of a complete instant messaging system, others are provided by commercial vendors of a part of a distributed system. Some companies may be motivated to inflate their numbers in order to increase advertisement earnings or to attract partners, clients, or customers. Importantly, some numbers are reported as the number of "active" users (without a shared standard of that activity), others indicate total user accounts, while others indicate only the users logged in during an instance of peak usage.

  • AIM: 53 million active users (September 2006), "over 100 million" total (January 2006).
  • Jabber: between 40 and 50 million (January 2007). Note that this number is based on calculations of Jabber Inc ("nearly 10 million open source users") which differ from those of Process-One ("Our total deployments account for more than 20 millions of accounts"). Process-One is a company providing services based on the Jabber server software ejabberd. Accordingly, as there are many other open source servers (some also with companies behind it), the number provided by Jabber Inc is probably too small. If we presume ejabberd has a 40% market share amongst public and non-public open source server deployments, there are 50 million of users using an open source server. This would mean, including Jabber Inc's numbers, that there are around 90 million of Jabber users instead of 50 million.
  • Ebuddy (MSN, Yahoo! and AIM) : 35 million users (including 4 million mobile) (October 2006)
  • MSN: 27.2 million active (September 2006), 155 million total (April 2005).
  • Yahoo! Messenger: 22 million users (September 2006).
  • QQ: 20 million peak online users, 221 million "active"[9] (majority in China) (July 2006).
  • Sametime: 15 million (enterprise) users (undated)
  • Skype: 9 million peak online (January 2007), 137 million total (January 2007).
  • Xfire: 6.1 million users (January 2007)
  • Gadu-Gadu: 5.6 million users (June 2006).
  • ICQ: 4 million active (September 2006).
  • Paltalk: 3.3 million unique visitors per month (August 2006).
  • MXit: 3 million users (majority in South Africa, more than 200,000 international) (31 January 2007). Note that these users are part of the Jabber user base as MXit federates with the Jabber network.
  • PSYC: 1 million users, daily (majority in Brazil) (February 2007). Total amount of users cannot be estimated due to the decentralized nature of the protocol.
  • Meebo (Yahoo!, MSN, Jabber, AIM and ICQ): 1 million users (October 2006)
  • IMVU: 1 million users (June 2007)

Notes and references

  1. ^ Screenshot of a Quantum Link OLM
  2. ^ Summary of final decisions issued by the trademark trial and appeal board, January 16-20, 2006
  3. ^ "Important and Long Delayed News", Announcement of Gaim renaming (to Pidgin), April 06, 2007
  4. ^ Leading Mobile Operators to Deliver Ubiquitous Instant Messaging Industry Press Release at 3GSM World Congress, 12 February 2006
  5. ^ IM Security Center. Retrieved on 2007-05-13.
  6. ^ ESG compliance report excerpt, Part 1: Introduction.
  7. ^ Akonix Warns Corporations of Risqué Employee IM Behavior.
  8. ^ Chris Christiansen and Rose Ryan, International Data Corp., "IDC Telebriefing: Threat Management Security Appliance Review and Forecast"
  9. ^ "Tencent QQ's Peak Simultaneous Online User Accounts Broke 20 Million", Tencent press release, 3 June 2006, retrieved 14 July 2006

External links

Enterprise application integration
Instant messaging
Internet search
Web service specifications
List of web service protocols

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