Get more out of your internet connection with our guide to instant messaging services
In the first of our new articles on making the most of your internet connection we take a look at instant messaging (IM), voice over IP (VOIP) and webcam software. The internet has made it easier and cheaper than ever to stay in touch with all your friends and family. E-mail, IM, VOIP and webcam services mean that you communicate with your friends even if they are hundreds of miles away. In this article we’ll explore instant messaging programs in a little more detail. Hopefully when you have read the article and become familiar with the concepts, you’ll be eager to try them out for yourself.
What is Instant Messaging?
Most internet users are familiar with e-mail. Indeed, e-mail has been around as long as the internet itself. When sending an e-mail, typically you send a message similar to a letter, then wait for delivery of your message and an eventual reply. Instant messaging is similar, but works more like a telephone conversation. When typing a message into an instant messaging program (often referred to as an instant messaging client), your message is delivered instantly. This allows two people to have a real-time conversation across the internet. This process is similar to ‘chat rooms’ except instant messaging is usually between two people rather than groups of people.
What is VOIP?
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is a complicated sounding acronym but is actually easy to explain. VOIP software connects two computers on the internet and allows the users to speak to each other using a compatible headset. You can think of it as a internet telephone.
What are Webcams?
Webcams are small cameras that usually sit on top of your PC monitor. Often the pictures they take do not get sent to the web at all, instead they are transmitted across the internet to friends, family or contacts. If your internet connection is up to it, a webcam will allow you to see your friends as you chat to them, like a video-phone.
Keep in mind that video quality when using a webcam will almost always be low-resolution, even on broadband internet connections. This is due to the large amounts of data that must be transferred for live full-motion video.
How Does Instant Messaging Work?
To conduct a conversation using instant messaging, you first need to install a compatible instant messaging program on your computer. Then, the person you wish to chat to must do the same on his or her computer. There are several different types of IM program available on the internet, but while they all do the same job, IM software from one company is generally not compatible with IM software from another company. So, for example, a user who installs Windows Live Messenger will not be able to communicate with a user who is using AOL instant messenger, although there is nothing to stop you installing more than one IM program onto your computer.
During the installation of your chosen IM software, you will be required to set up a screen name, or number. Now all you need to do is exchange this name/number with your contact. Once you have done that and entered your friends details into your IM software, you will be able to communicate. Typically, IM software requires a central server which relays messages between clients. It is worth remembering that most IM software does not include any encryption by default and it is not a good idea to send sensitive information by IM without encrypting it first.
Free Instant Messaging Services
There are several different instant messaging services in use on the internet. The one that people choose to use is usually determined by what their friends are using. The major IM providers are:-
AOL Instant Messenger (America Online)
Google Talk (Google)
Yahoo Instant Messenger (Yahoo inc)
All the above allow the use of instant messaging by text and voice and they all support webcams. Skype was designed from the ground-up to be a VOIP program and as such it has the best support for VOIP. Skype users can even buy credits that let them call regular telephones through their internet connection.
Dangers of Instant Messaging
There are some pitfalls that you must be aware of when you take the plunge into the world of IM. Fortunately, a good helping of common sense is usually all you need to stay safe.
Stranger Danger – Kids and teens love instant messaging for keeping in touch with their friends. However, most IM software allows users to create profiles and add new contacts from around the world. This makes it easier for strangers to communicate with youngsters. To prevent this, supervise your childrens online activites, or use one of the IM programs that allows you to manage your childrens contacts. Windows Live Messenger coupled with the family safety plugin allows you to approve any new individual before your children can communicate with them.
Evesdropping – Instant messaging conversations feel ‘private’ but it is worth remembering that anything you type is sent in plain text. Don’t ever be tempted to send credit or debit card details. For individuals or corporations who want a greater degree of privacy, special encryption software can be used to secure IM conversations.
Viruses – “OMG you look so stupid in this photo” goes the message and shortly after you’re offered a photo for download. Before you start thinking who got hold of your last set of Christmas party snaps, keep in mind that several nasty viruses hijack popular instant messaging clients and send false messages out, encouraging you to download infected files. Just because the file is from someone you know does not mean you can trust it. Take care with downloaded files on IM just as you do on the internet.
Multi Protocol Instant Messaging
Windows users are used to being spoilt for choice when it comes to software and IM software is no different. However, running two or even three different IM programs is inconvenient and wastes computer resources. Because of this, ingenious computer programmers have come up with IM software that allows you to connect to several networks at once. There are several programs that let you do this now, but we believe the best three are:-
Digsby – A strong contender which supports popular instant messaging networks and social networking too.
Pidgin – A favourite amongst the TWT staff. Pidgin has been around for many years and supports a huge number of different IM protocols. Pidgin is stable and light-weight and can protect your conversations using the OTR encryption plugin.
Trillian – Trillian has always been a strong contender in the multi-protocol IM field. Just like Pidgin, it supports a huge range of protocols, can support encryption and has an enthusiastic user base. Trillian 5 is the best Trilian yet, supporting a huge range of features, protocols and social networks.
Jitsi - A new, open source instant messaging program with strong support for video and excellent privacy protection.
If you’re not sure which of the above programs meets your needs best, you can now read our 2013 multi protocol instant messaging face-off where we evaluate Trillian, Digsby, Pidgin, IM+ and Jitsi.
The biggest disadvantage of using the multi-protocol instant messaging programs is that they are usually behind the official IM programs in terms of features supported. For example, many of the multi-protocol IM programs listed above do not support voice or webcams, or their support is limited compared to the official IM clients.
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