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How Instant Messaging Works

New Instant Messaging Innovations
Elvis fans can find plenty of buddy icons on AIM.
Elvis fans can find plenty of buddy icons on AIM.

IM capabilities have greatly expanded in recent years. Most services offer file-sharing, and AOL, Yahoo!, Google and MSN have integrated IM service with e-mail service, so users can receive e-mail notifications while instant messaging. Many providers also allow users to IM and file-share from their cell phones and mobile devices, allowing access to their services any place, any time. A Google Talk user can archive IM conversations and also drag files and folders directly onto the chat window, with photos showing up instantly in their friend's chat window. Windows Live Messenger allows instant-messaging between Xbox 360 gamers. Personalization capabilities have exploded, with IMers able to customize personal icons, screen interfaces and greetings.

­Most IM programs, including Windows Live Messenger and Google Talk, allow users to talk just as you would over a telephone, and some offer video-chat capabilities. (For more information, see our article on Voice over Internet Protocol technology.)

Several free utilities combine various services. Trillian provides a centralized location for AIM, ICQ, Windows Live, Yahoo! Messenger and IRC contacts. All contacts are shown in the same window, with different-colored circles representing each service. Trillian's "metacontact" feature displays one entry in the contact list for people with multiple IM memberships, and it's the only multiservice client that offers video-chat capabilities (although you'll have to shell out $25 for a Pro membership).

Users of Pidgin can IM, transfer files and share photos with contacts in AIM, ICQ, IRC, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger. Its "Buddy Pounce" feature sends notifications when selected contacts change their online status or send IMs. Universal IM providers Meebo and eBuddy are Web-based, meaning they don't require a software download. eBuddy also offers a version of its service for cell phones. Friends IMing on Qnext, which works with all the major IM providers, can listen to each other's music files without having to download them.

The future of instant messaging is very bright. All of the utilities described in this article continue to be updated by their owners, and IM providers continue to collaborate on allowing more interface between users of their services. Business users can now have virtual conferences and collaborate on projects very easily. If you have not tried IM, you're missing out on a whole new world of communication.