Saturday, February 25, 2006

IM Revisited

ICQ was the first general instant messenger combining presence or list of contacts with the ability to send messages. ICQ was introduced in November, 1996. ICQ was awarded two patents from the U.S. patent office. After its introduction, a number of variations of instant messaging have arisen in parallel in many places, each with its own protocol. This has led to users running many instant messaging applications simultaneously to be available on several networks. Alternatively they could use a client which supports many protocols, such as Gaim, Trillian or Miranda clients. - Wikipedia

Yes, I confess, I spoke too soon. After enthusing about IM last week, I have discovered a few drawbacks. Very foolishly I assumed that IM is genuinely cross-platform, like every other part of the internet. This is, after all, the basis of the internet – no matter what type of computer, processor, operating system or browser you may be using - you can interact with every other part of the net. So, being used to interchangeability as a core principle of the net, I just assumed that IM worked the same way. I thought it was pretty much like email. I was very wrong.

One of the key features of email is its cross-platform usage. No matter which internet service provider you are with (even one of the web-based providers of free email services) you can send messages to anyone with an email address. IM doesn't work that way. There are a number of providers and they are not compatible with each other.

Therefore, what I assumed about IM was not true. Actually, it was totally false. There is no industry standard and each network is independent of the others. This was a bit of a shock – and not entirely expected. Learning this, I felt like the man who fell off the Empire State building. As he passed each floor, people heard him saying, “So far, so good.”

Ok, so IM is a bit quirky. Actually it's worse than that. If you are unaware of these protocol difficulties, you may erroneously assume you have done something wrong when you cannot connect with someone on a different network. You may think that you have done something wrong when the fault is just the system itself. This is an inherently nonsensical situation. Not knowing that that there are other networks which you cannot connect to becomes de rigeur; therefore if you do not know - you are in some kind of internet limbo – destined to wait forever for a contact that you can see but can never get in touch with. Geeks beware. This could be geek hell.

What really puzzled me was the sign-up process for the various networks. When I first tried to sign up for MSN – or get a MSN passport – or whatever its called - for heaven's sake I don't want to invade a foreign country – all I want is to try the instant messaging – get a life, Microsoft! Not possible without a Hotmail account – only it doesn't tell you this until the very last stage of the process. Then, and only then, does it say it does not recognise other email addresses. Now, I have reason to believe that this is not true all over at all times. I think this because my sister – who lives in Missouri – has an on-line identity with a non-Microsoft provider, yet also has a MSN Messenger account? How can this be? I'm just guessing here, but it may be that Microsoft have fallen so foul of the U.S. Authorities that they have been forced (in America) to let people without Hotmail accounts to get a MS Messenger IM account. I'm going to believe this until someone proves it different. Nevertheless, here in jolly old England it appears that without a Hotmail account – there is no chance of getting a MSN Passport and therefore no chance of Instant Messaging with Microsoft. Look like Catch 22 to anyone else?

Same thing, with minor variations, happens with the other major networks, ICQ, AIM, etc. Result: no sign-up – no contacting anyone on their network. A nice variation on “no tickee -no washee”! Bottom line – IM is not as easy as it appears. You need to know what you are doing or you can get confused with the various networks and protocols. After some scouting around, I found a nice open source program called Trillian. Kind of nice – I'm sure that was the name of the female “assistant” in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That makes sense if you consider that the infinite improbability drive is possible and the earth is being run for the benefit of the white mice. Not forgetting the dolphins, “Bye, bye and thanks for all the fish!”

The advantage of this program is it allows you to connect to different networks - all from within the same software. Also, it has no adverts or other junk bundled with it. I am not getting paid for saying this – honest. There is also a Windows/Linux program called Gaim. Unfortunately, I missed this first time around - or I might have given it a whirl – in keeping with my Windows/Linux backup strategy. I may investigate it later. Till then I fear I may have opened a can of worms for my friends/contacts. Hope I'm wrong – honest.

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