Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Instant Messaging

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Instant messaging (IM) is communicating over the Internet through the typing of text from one person to another. This is done on a computer or other device connected to the Internet by a cable or wireless connection and done in real time. It is text communication done specifically between users by a contact list, buddy list, or a friend list, whereas online chat is usually done by users in a multi-user environment. Some IM programs allow for video messaging by a web cam, direct talk by microphone, and file transfers (usually limited size).

IM began in the 1990’s, but the actual use of IM predates the internet using multi-user systems in the 1960’s. These systems were designed for printing services, but quickly adapted to communication between multiple users logged onto the same machine. Some of the protocols were named peer-to-peer, others required people to connect to a server. One system is called Zephyr Notification Service invented at MIT in the 1980’s to allow service providers to send messages to other users. The first form of IM in the 1980’s was developed by CompuServe and used as an online chat.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Unix talk was a popular form of an IM program using real time text to communicate. Quantum Link was another online service for Commodore 64 computers which offered user-to-user messaging. These were called “On-Line Messages” (OLM). OLMs would appear on a split screen on the computer as a yellow bar saying “Message From” along with the name of the sender and the message sent with a list of options. Quantum Link added an extra per minute fee for these messages along with the monthly fee for access.

In the mid 1990’s IM programs began to evolve with PowWow, ICQ, and AOL instant messenger. AOL was awarded two patents for an IM program in the late 1990’s. Other companies like Excite, MSN, Ubique, and Yahoo, began to develop software, using their own protocols and clients. In 1998, IBM launched IBM Lotus Sametime, after acquiring Ubique and Databeam.

In 2000 Jabber was released using open source and open standard protocols, named Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP). These servers acted as gateways to other IM protocols which would reduce the need for using multiple clients. In 2007 IBM added support for XMPP into their program. As of 2010 many social network providers offer IM capability, Facebook Chat and Twitter’s Web 2.0 are forms of IM.

IM applications have a contact list with the ability to send text, transfer files from user to user, and hold several conversations at the same time. Larger businesses that use the IM format for communication incorporate the use of XMPP, Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Communicator, and other software to handle the large flow of IMs.

There have many attempts to unify the IM into a standard format. In 2003, Reuters signed the first inter-service provider connectivity agreement, which enabled communication between Reuters Messaging with AIM, ICQ and MSN Messenger. In 2005, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and AOL followed suit using SIP/SIMPLE protocol for their program. This program combines the many protocols inside the IM client application; however the programs suffer reverse engineering difficulties.

Solutions for this were to allow organizations to develop their own private IM network enabling them to restrict access to the server by user permissions by a pre-populated contact list. This provided better security and privacy. Some providers have made changes to prevent use of multi-network IM clients. These changes were made from security concerns. The drawback to these changes is that many IM networks are incompatible and users cannot reach other users on a different network.

Mobile IM is a technology that allows communication from a portable device such as mobile phones and smartphones. This is done by embedded clients customized for every specific device or by a clientless platform where a browser application does not need any software to perform the IM and all users can connect to any other user on any other device.

IM users sometimes use slang or abbreviated words to quicken the conversation or to reduce keystrokes. Such as LOL (laughing out loud), or BRB (be right back). Emotions are another form of shorthand messaging where a small icon (called an emotion) is used to show a feeling or emotion. In some IMs, these are also called emoticons.

IM comes with many benefits, but also with some risks.

One security risk includes hackers imbedding spyware, viruses, trojans, and worms to infect the device receiving the message.

Another is a compliance risk within the work place where IM could create non-compliance to regulations of the use of IM in business. In the US there are over 10,000 laws and regulations about the use of electronic communication. The most common work place regulation is all electronic communications, including IMs, produced at work must be archived and retrievable.

There is risk of inappropriate use, especially at the work place, where users can harass or offend others through IM. Within the work place IM programs are coded to archive, scan content, and scan for security risks of all IM being sent and received.

Instant Messaging