Instant messaging

Instant messaging
Pidgin 2.0 running under GNOME

Instant Messaging (IM) is a form of real-time direct text-based chatting communication in push mode between two or more people using personal computers or other devices, along with shared clients. The user's text is conveyed over a network, such as the Internet. More advanced instant messaging software clients also allow enhanced modes of communication, such as live voice or video calling and inclusion of links to media.



Instant messaging (IM) falls under the umbrella term online chat, since it is also text-based, bi-directionally exchanged, and happens in real-time. IM is distinct from chat in that IM is based on clients that facilitate connections between specified known users (often using a contact list, buddy list, or friend list). Online 'chat' includes web-based applications that allow communication between (often directly addressed, but anonymous) users in a multi-user environment.


Instant messaging (IM) is a set of communication technologies used for text-based communication between two or more participants over the Internet or other types of networks. IM–chat happens in real-time. Of importance is that online chat and instant messaging differ from other technologies such as email due to the perceived quasi-synchronicity of the communications by the users. Some systems permit messages to be sent to users not then 'logged on' (offline messages), thus removing some differences between IM and email (often done by sending the message to the associated email account).

IM allows effective and efficient communication, allowing immediate receipt of acknowledgment or reply. However IM is basically not necessarily supported by transaction control. In many cases, instant messaging includes added features which can make it even more popular. For example, users may see each other via webcams, or talk directly for free over the Internet using a microphone and headphones or loudspeakers. Many client programs allow file transfers, although they are usually limited in the permissible file-size.

It is usually possible to save a text conversation for later reference. Instant messages are often logged in a local message history, making it similar to the persistent nature of emails.


Command-line Unix "talk", using a split screen user interface, was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Instant messaging predates the Internet, first appearing on multi-user operating systems like Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) and Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (Multics)[1] in the mid-1960s. Initially, some of these systems were used as notification systems for services like printing, but quickly were used to facilitate communication with other users logged in to the same machine.[citation needed] As networks developed, the protocols spread with the networks. Some of these used a peer-to-peer protocol (e.g. talk, ntalk and ytalk), while others required peers to connect to a server (see talker and IRC). The Zephyr Notification Service (still in use at some institutions) was invented at MIT's Project Athena in the 1980s to allow service providers to locate and send messages to users. During the bulletin board system (BBS) phenomenon that peaked during the 1980s, some systems incorporated chat features which were similar to instant messaging; Freelancin' Roundtable was one prime example. The first[2] dedicated online chat service was the CompuServe CB Simulator in 1980,[3] created by CompuServe executive Alexander "Sandy" Trevor in Columbus, Ohio.

Early instant messaging programs were primarily real-time text, where characters appeared as it is typed. This includes the Unix "talk" command line program, which was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some BBS chat programs (i.e. Celerity BBS) also used a similar interface. Modern implementations of real-time text also exist in instant messengers, such as AOL's Real-Time IM[4] as an optional feature.[5]

In the latter half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the Quantum Link online service for Commodore 64 computers offered user-to-user messages between concurrently connected customers,[citation needed] which they called "On-Line Messages" (or OLM for short), and later "FlashMail."[citation needed] (Quantum Link later became America Online[citation needed] and made AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), discussed later). While the Quantum Link service ran on a Commodore 64, using only the Commodore's PETSCII text-graphics, the screen was visually divided 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.[6] As such, it could be considered a type of graphical user interface (GUI), albeit much more primitive than the later Unix, Windows and Macintosh based GUI IM software. OLMs were what Q-Link called "Plus Services"[citation needed] 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[citation needed] with PowWow, ICQ, and AOL Instant Messenger. Similar functionality was offered by CU-SeeMe in 1992; though primarily an audio/video chat link, users could also send textual messages to each other. AOL later acquired Mirabilis, the authors of ICQ;[citation needed] a few years later ICQ (now owned by AOL) was awarded two patents[citation needed] for instant messaging by the U.S. patent office. Meanwhile, other companies developed their own software;[citation needed] (Excite, MSN, Ubique, and Yahoo), each with its own proprietary protocol and client;[citation needed] users therefore had to run multiple client applications if they wished to use more than one of these networks. In 1998, IBM released IBM Lotus Sametime,[citation needed] a product based on technology acquired when IBM bought Haifa-based Ubique and Lexington-based Databeam.[citation needed]

In 2000, an open source application and open standards-based protocol called Jabber was launched. The protocol was standardized under the name Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP).[citation needed] XMPP servers could act as gateways to other IM protocols, reducing the need to run multiple clients.[citation needed] Multi-protocol clients can use any of the popular IM protocols by using additional local libraries for each protocol.[citation needed] IBM Lotus Sametime's November 2007 release added IBM Lotus Sametime Gateway support for XMPP.[citation needed]

As of 2010, social networking providers often offer IM abilities.[citation needed]

Many instant messaging services offer video calling features, Voice Over IP (VoIP) and web conferencing services.[citation needed] Web conferencing services can integrate both video calling and instant messaging abilities. Some instant messaging companies are also offering desktop sharing, IP radio, and IPTV to the voice and video features.[citation needed]

The term "Instant Messenger" is a service mark of Time Warner[7] and may not be used in software not affiliated with AOL in the United States. For this reason, in April 2007, the instant messaging client formerly named Gaim (or gaim) announced that they would be renamed "Pidgin".[8]


Each modern IM service generally provides its own client,[citation needed] either a separately installed piece of software, or a browser-based client. These usually only work with the supplier company's service, although some allow limited function with other services.[citation needed] Third party client software applications exist that will connect with most of the major IM services.[citation needed] Adium, Digsby, Jappix, Meebo, Miranda IM, Pidgin, Qnext and Trillian are a few of the common ones.


Pidgin's tabbed chat window in Linux

Standard, complimentary instant messaging applications offer functions like file transfer, contact list(s), the ability to hold several simultaneous conversations, etc.[citation needed] These may be all the functions that a small business needs, but larger organizations will require more sophisticated applications that can work together.[citation needed] The solution to finding applications capable of this is to use enterprise versions of instant messaging applications.[citation needed] These include titles like XMPP, Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Communicator, etc., which are often integrated with other enterprise applications such as workflow systems.[citation needed] These enterprise applications, or enterprise application integration (EAI), are built to certain constraints, namely storing data in a common format.[citation needed]

There have been several attempts to create a unified standard for instant messaging: IETF's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), Application Exchange (APEX), Presence and Instant Messaging Protocol (Prim), the open XML-based Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), and Open Mobile Alliance's Instant Messaging and Presence Service developed specifically for mobile devices.[citation needed]

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

However, while discussions at IETF were stalled,[citation needed] Reuters signed the first inter-service provider connectivity agreement on September 2003.[citation needed] This agreement enabled AIM, ICQ and MSN Messenger users to talk with Reuters Messaging counterparts and vice-versa.[citation needed] Following this, Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL agreed to a deal in which Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 users would also have the possibility to talk to public instant messaging users.[citation needed] This deal established SIP/SIMPLE as a standard for protocol interoperability[citation needed] and established a connectivity fee for accessing public instant messaging groups or services.[citation needed] Separately, on 13 October 2005, Microsoft and Yahoo! announced that by the 3rd quarter of 2006 they would interoperate using SIP/SIMPLE,[citation needed] which was followed, in December 2005, by the AOL and Google strategic partnership deal in which Google Talk users would be able to communicate with AIM and ICQ users provided they have an AIM account.[citation needed]

There are two ways to combine the many disparate protocols:

  • Combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM client application.
  • Combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM server application. This approach moves the task of communicating with the other services to the server. Clients need not know or care about other IM protocols. For example, LCS 2005 Public IM Connectivity.[citation needed] This approach is popular in XMPP servers;[citation needed] however, the so-called transport projects suffer the same reverse engineering difficulties as any other project involved with closed protocols or formats.[citation needed]

Some approaches allow organizations to deploy their own, private instant messaging network by enabling them to restrict 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,[citation needed] by using an encrypted, firewall-friendly, HTTPS-based protocol. Usually, a dedicated corporate IM server has several advantages, such as pre-populated contact lists, integrated authentication, and better security and privacy.[citation needed]

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

The use of proprietary protocols has meant that many instant messaging networks have been incompatible and users have been unable to reach users on other networks. This has cost the instant messaging format dearly.[9]

Mobile instant messaging

Mobile instant messaging (MIM) is the technology that allows instant messaging services to be accessed from a portable device, ranging from standard mobile phones, to smartphones (e.g. devices using operating systems such as Android, Blackberry OS, iOS, Symbian OS, Windows Phone, et al.). It is done two ways:

  • Embedded clients - tailored IM client for every specific device.
  • Clientless platform – a browser-based application that does not need to download any software to the handset, and which enables all users and all devices from any network to connect to their Internet IM service, ideally. In practice, browser limits can pose problems.

In web browser

Gmail introduced instant messaging ability in its webpages, which can be used in a web browser with no need to download and install the IM client. Later, Yahoo and Hotmail also implemented this. eBuddy and Meebo websites offers instant messaging of different IM services. Generally such services are limited to text chat, although Gmail has voice and video abilities. As of August 2010, Gmail allows calling regular phones from their web-based IM client.

Jappix is a XMPP web-client, offering the user a complete XMPP protocol features access, through a web browser. It is offered in three versions: a desktop one, a mobile one and a mini one. The last one, Jappix Mini, is a mini chat for websites.

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 friends list. This allows for communication with friends of friends and for the building of chatrooms for instant messages with all friends on that network.

IM language

Users sometimes make use of internet slang or text speak to abbreviate common words or expressions to quicken conversations or reduce keystrokes. The language has become widespread, with well-known expressions such as 'lol' translated over to face-to-face language.

Emotions are often expressed in shorthand, such as the abbreviation LOL, BRB and TTYL; respectively laugh(ing) out loud, be right back, and talk to you later.

Some, however, attempt to be more accurate with emotional expression over IM. Real time reactions such as (chortle) (snort) (guffaw) or (eye-roll) are becoming more popular. Also there are certain standards that are being introduced into mainstream conversations including, '#' indicates the use of sarcasm in a statement and '*' which indicates a spelling mistake and/or grammatical error in the prior message, followed by a correction.[10]

Business application

Instant messaging has proven to be similar to personal computers, email, and the World Wide Web, 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 IBM Lotus Sametime in 1998. Microsoft followed suit shortly thereafter with Microsoft Exchange Instant Messaging, later created a new platform called Microsoft Office Live Communications Server, and released Office Communications Server 2007 in October 2007. Oracle Corporation has also jumped into the market recently with its Oracle Beehive unified collaboration software.[11] Both IBM Lotus and Microsoft have introduced federation between their EIM systems and some of the public IM networks so that employees may use one interface to both their internal EIM system and their contacts on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! As of 2010, leading EIM platforms include IBM Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Communications Server, Jabber XCP and Cisco Unified Presence. Industry-focused EIM platforms as Reuters Messaging and Bloomberg Messaging also provide enhanced IM abilities to financial services companies.

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

Review of products

IM products can usually be categorised into two types: Enterprise Instant Messaging (EIM)[12] and Consumer Instant Messaging (CIM).[13] Enterprise solutions use an internal IM server, however this isn't always feasible, particularly for smaller businesses with limited budgets. The second option, using a CIM provides the advantage of being inexpensive to implement and has little need for investing in new hardware or server software.

For corporate use, encryption and conversation archiving are usually regarded as important features due to security concerns. Sometimes the use of different operating systems in organizations requires use of software that supports more than one platform. For example many software companies use Windows XP in administration departments but have software developers who use Linux.

A company with Windows network could use a software application like ShixxNOTE [14] which is a network-enabled sticky notes program. Every computer on the network listens for new messages which when found are presented to the user like colorfull desktop sticky notes via which a reply can be sent instantly.

Risks and liabilities

Although instant messaging delivers many benefits, it also carries with it certain risks and liabilities, particularly when used in workplaces. Among these risks and liabilities are:

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

Security risks

Crackers (malicious "hacker" or black hat hacker) have consistently used IM networks as vectors for delivering phishing attempts, "poison URLs", and virus-laden file attachments from 2004 to the present, with over 1100 discrete attacks listed by the IM Security Center[15] in 2004-2007. Hackers use two methods of delivering malicious code through IM: delivery of viruses, trojan horses, 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 connecting him or her to a website that then downloads malicious code. Viruses, computer worms, and trojans usually propagate by sending themselves rapidly through the infected user's contact list. An effective attack using a poisoned URL may reach tens of thousands of users in a short period when each user's contact 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.

IM connections usually occur in plain text, making them vulnerable to eavesdropping. Also, IM client software often requires the user to expose open UDP ports to the world, raising the threat posed by potential security vulnerabilities.[16]

Compliance risks

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 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.[17] The better-known of these include the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, HIPAA, and SEC 17a-3. Clarification from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) was issued to member firms in the financial services industry in December, 2007, noting that "electronic communications", "email", and "electronic correspondence" may be used interchangeably and can include such forms of electronic messaging as instant messaging and text messaging.[18] Changes to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, effective December 1, 2006, created a new category for electronic records which may be requested during discovery in legal proceedings. Most nations also regulate use of electronic messaging and electronic records retention in similar fashion as 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.

Inappropriate use

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 U.S. 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 nations, 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.[19] 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 "computer appliance", according to IDC, who estimate that by 2008, 80% of network security products will be delivered via an appliance.[20]

User base

Many of the numbers listed in this section are not directly comparable, and some are speculative. 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 to raise advertising earnings or attract partners, clients, or customers. Importantly, some numbers are reported as the number of active users (with no shared standard of that activity), others indicate total user accounts, while others indicate only the users logged in during an instance of peak use.

Service User count Date/source
AIM 53 million active September 2006
>100 million total January 2006
eBuddy 35 million total October 2006, including 4 million mobile users
Bistri N/A June 2011
Gadu-Gadu Over 6 million active (most in Poland) May 2009
IBM Lotus Sametime 40 million total (licensed, entitled users in enterprises)[citation needed] December 2009
ICQ 50 million active CNET February 8, 2010
IMVU 1 million total June 2007 Agent 1 million active (daily) September 2006
Meebo 1 million total October 2006
MXit 11 million total (9 million in South Africa) 29 January 2009.
Paltalk 3.3 million unique visitors per month August 2006
PSYC 1 million active (daily) (most in Brazil) February 2007; these users are part of the IRC user base, messaging user base consists of a few hundred users
Skype 30 million peak online [ March 2011]
882 million total as of July, 1st, 2011 (can be checked when searching users in Skype 5.x)
Tencent QQ 100 million peak online (most in China) QQ's official website[21]
440 million active accounts (includes users with multiple accounts). (most in China) Q's official website[21]
990 million total registered accounts. (most in China) Q's official website[21]
VZOchat >550,000 December 2008
Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger) 330 million active June 2009
Wireclub 3 million total November 2011
Xfire 16 million total May 2010
Yahoo! Messenger 248 million active registered Yahoo global users (refers to ALL Yahoo users not instant messaging users) 17 Jan 2008
Blauk 700, 000 users each day [2]

See also


  1. ^ Instant Messaging on CTSS and Multics
  2. ^ CompuServe Innovator Resigns After 25 Years, The Columbus Dispatch, 11 May 1996, p. 2F
  3. ^ Wired and Inspired, The Columbus Dispatch (Business page), by Mike Pramik, 12 November 2000
  4. ^ AOL Instant Messenger's Real-Time IM feature
  5. ^ [1]'s animation of real-time text.
  6. ^ Screenshot of a Quantum Link OLM
  7. ^ Summary of final decisions issued by the trademark trial and appeal board, January 16-20, 2006
  8. ^ "Important and Long Delayed News", Announcement of Gaim renaming (to Pidgin), April 6, 2007
  9. ^ "The decline of instant messaging". BBC News. 2010-05-24. 
  10. ^ instant messaging,
  11. ^ "Oracle Buzzes with Updates for its Beehive Collaboration Platform". CMSWire. 2009-05-06. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ ShixxNOTE desktop sticky notes and LAN messenger program
  15. ^ "IM Security Center". Retrieved 2007-05-13. 
  16. ^ "Why just say no to IM at work". 2009-10-29. ISSN 1797-1993. Retrieved 2009-10-29. 
  17. ^ "ESG compliance report excerpt, Part 1: Introduction".,289483,sid5_gci906152,00.html. Retrieved 2007-05-13. 
  18. ^ FINRA, Regulatory Notice 07-59, Supervision of Electronic Communications, December 2007
  19. ^ "Akonix Warns Corporations of Risqué Employee IM Behavior". Retrieved 2007-05-13. 
  20. ^ Chris Christiansen and Rose Ryan, International Data Corp., "IDC Telebriefing: Threat Management Security Appliance Review and Forecast"
  21. ^ a b c QQ website - History

External links

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