Instant messaging beyond ICQ

By Вen Li

Instant messaging has come a long way since ICQ debuted in 1998. ICQ grew from virtual obscurity to an estimated 126 million users in 2002 at a pace outstripped only by growth in Web and e-mail usage.

But ICQ’s success left many competitors wanting a piece of the IM pie. According to the International Data Group, users spent a total of 14 billion minutes per month on IM networks in 2001. Microsoft, America Online, Yahoo! and a host of others each launched their own IM networks to capture users and advertising revenue, resulting in incompatible clients and territorial battles. Millions of users were forced to contend with multiple IM networks to keep in touch.

With so many networks and protocols, standards were needed to ensure that current and future IM users would be able to communicate. The July 2000 formation of IMUnified-a consortium including AT&T, MSN, Prodigy and Yahoo!-and its development of an interoperable standard, raised hopes of a universal IM communications protocol.

Unfortunately, AOL has never participated in IMUnified and its AIM network, which claims over 100 million users, remains incompatible with the other networks. AOL has actively fought attempts by competitors to communicate with its users leaving their own users stranded. To compound matters, development of IM clients using the IMUnified standard has also been lacking.

Students from online communities that have standardized on different IM networks stand to benefit enormously from new clients that can communicate with all the major IM networks. For example, with a single Jabber client you can communicate with colleagues, friends and family even if they’re each on a different network.


The Jabber Instant Messaging system is a truly platform-independent peer-to-peer solution to today’s multiple IM network woes. Clients and server software are available for free and servers are volunteered by computer enthusiasts. Jabber client software is available for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, UNIX, Java and portable platforms while the server software, which hosts the Transports required to communicate with the non-Jabber networks, is available for Linux.

The Jabber Instant Messenger client itself is unspectacular however. While it’s mostly functional-supporting connectivity to all the major IM networks-the lack of attention to interface design suggest that the original authors intend others to build upon the free source code.


myJabber isn’t feature-laden, but it does serve its purpose of supporting ICQ, MSN, AIM, Yahoo! and Jabber connectivity for Windows users. Of all the clients tested, myJabber was the easiest to set up in terms of program configuration and importing existing contacts.

The client worked well on the AIM network despite the protracted battle by AOL to stop non-AOL AIM clients from accessing their network.

Support for MSN Hotmail e-mail notification is a nice feature, although the interface isn’t intuitive nor skinnable. For a mature product, however, the product documentation was noticeably lacking.

Fire 0.29b

For those lucky enough to be running Mac OS X 10.1, epicware has released Fire, an IM client that works on the AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! and Jabber networks and Internet Relay Chat. While it is still in development, Fire already fills the gap in quality non-propietary IM clients for the Macintosh.

Fast and responsive, Fire integrates seamlessly into the Aqua interface. In addition to the standard features, Fire sports advanced features such as rich text, message encryption and file transfers. Certain usability features such as making the addition of buddies or groups easier will hopefully be added in future versions.

Fire is free both in terms of beer and speech since it is free to download, and the program’s source code is available for tweaking if you so desire.

Trillian 0.724

Trillian ranks as the second best client tested in terms of functionality, supporting AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! and IRC protocols. Its skinnable interface and solid design make Trillian the best looking client of the bunch.

The overall depth of functionality including an expandable tasks and shortcuts panel, efficient use of audible alerts and lack of built-in ads are definitely pluses. Trillian would be the champion but it did not work with AIM when we tested it and caused issues with system stability.

With the pace at which Trillian is evolving the 1.0 version will likely address these issues and then some.

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