Web Design & Development Guide
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
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
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
A screenshot of
PowWow, one of the first instant messengers with a graphical user
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. 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
The term "instant messenger" is a service mark of Time Warner 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".
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:
- One way is to combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM client
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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,
- 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
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
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
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.
Companies now include instant messaging as an integral component of their
policies on appropriate use of the World Wide Web, email, and other corporate
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.
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
AIM: 53 million active users (September 2006), "over 100 million" total
- 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
- 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" (majority in
China) (July 2006).
- Sametime: 15 million (enterprise) users (undated)
- Skype: 9
million peak online (January 2007), 137 million total (January 2007).
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
Screenshot of a Quantum Link OLM
Summary of final decisions issued by the trademark trial and appeal board,
January 16-20, 2006
"Important and Long Delayed News", Announcement of Gaim renaming (to
April 06, 2007
Leading Mobile Operators to Deliver Ubiquitous Instant Messaging
Industry Press Release at 3GSM World Congress,
12 February 2006
IM Security Center. Retrieved on
ESG compliance report excerpt, Part 1: Introduction.
Akonix Warns Corporations of Risqué Employee IM Behavior.
Chris Christiansen and Rose Ryan, International Data Corp., "IDC
Telebriefing: Threat Management Security Appliance Review and Forecast"
"Tencent QQ's Peak Simultaneous Online User Accounts Broke 20 Million",
Tencent press release, 3 June 2006, retrieved 14 July 2006
Enterprise application integration
Web service specifications
List of web service protocols