Tech

A Mania for Messaging

Driven by talky teenagers, instant chat programs are the Web's hot growth area

Chris Wood November 13 2000
Tech

A Mania for Messaging

Driven by talky teenagers, instant chat programs are the Web's hot growth area

Chris Wood November 13 2000

A Mania for Messaging

Tech

Driven by talky teenagers, instant chat programs are the Web's hot growth area

Chris Wood

Stuffed animals fill the bookshelf behind Mira Barnetts desk, threatening to overrun the trophies she won for public speaking. A blue cordless telephone matches her bedrooms colour scheme. But these days, the Vancouver Grade 8 student is more likely to gab with friends over her PC than on her phone. Using one of half a dozen instant messaging programs available free from the Internet, Barnett converses by exchanging short text messages with friends down the block or as far away as Mexico. Opening duplicate windows on her computer screen, Barnett shows how she keeps several “chats” going at once. Most are with schoolmates. But she also stays in touch with a Los Angeles friend and practises her Hebrew with a 75-year-old woman in Israel whom she met on the Net. Among the advantages, the 12-year-old says, “you can make conversations with a whole bunch of people at once, and talk to your friends all over and not pay long distance.”

Mira’s experience isn’t likely to surprise anyone under the age of 20 with access to a computer —or their parents. Among Netliterate teenagers, instant messaging—which combines the immediacy of the phone with the brevity of e-mail text—has become the hottest social advance since the mall. Talky teenage girls seem particularly smitten by the technology, helping propel female users of the Internet to more than half of total users for the first time. But the young are not alone. As the growing pop-

ularity of instant messaging (IM) outstrips that of either regular e-mail or conventional Web-browsing, adults and businesses are waking up to its potential. Much of that is to the good, saving time and boosting productivity. But not all: experts worry that IM exposes already overloaded workers to yet another powerful distraction. “It is one of the major concerns of our clients,” says John West, president of Priority Management Inc., a Vancouver company that trains executives in 16 countries. “They’re leaving important projects undone and getting less important e-mail attended to.” Nonetheless, IM’s rise has made the sector a rare hot spot of Web commerce, and driven the topic to centre stage in the debate over America Online’s proposed $205-billion takeover of Time Warner Inc. AOLs two IM services—ICQ (for “I seek you”) and AIM (AOL Instant Messenger)— account for an estimated 80 to 90 per cent of the world’s 140 million or so registered instant-message users. Rivals, including giant Microsoft with its MSN Messenger program (No. 2 in popularity in Canada after ICQ, according to research firm Media Metrix Canada), want regulators to loosen AOLs hold on those customers before approving the mega-merger.

At its heart, IM gives anyone with an Internet connection access to the same type of real-time chat that users of large corporate, academic or government networks have long enjoyed. Unlike conventional Internet e-mail, which can sometimes take hours or even days to reach its destination, IM systems deliver the message just as the name suggests—instandy. A flashing on-screen icon or sound alerts recipients. Moreover, while e-mail is open to all, IM networks are closed: users can only message others who subscribe to the same service.

That is half the trick. The other half is something IM users know by the name “buddy lists,” but engineers call “presence awareness.” This is the software that makes it possible for people log-

Message-speak

Instant messengers have spread and intensified the quicktyping, rarely capitalized vocabulary of online chat rooms. Translated samples:

sup? Whassup? (Similar to howzigoin) nm Nothing much (or spelled out, nutin) a/s/l? Age/sex/location? (Meaning, who r u?)

stats Answered by: brown hair, Ï15 lb____

oie I get it

kewl Rhymes with, but does not describe, skool

rox It rox, they rawk

brb Be right back

wth What the, er, heck. Sometimes wtf

cu See you ...

I8r ... Later

ging on to know who else among their list of friends is online at the same time. Alii Aziz, for instance, has about 20 names on her buddy list—all belonging to friends from her London, Ont., elementary school. Like Mira Barnett, 12-year-old Aziz usually pursues more than one chat thread at a time, with different individuals or groups. “The most I’ve ever had going at once,” she says, “was five.”

Allis mom understands the appeal. She doesn’t use instant messaging at home, but her employer’s e-mail system operates much like an IM service, showing an alert whenever a new communication arrives. “I do find its compulsive, Kathy Glasgow says. “I’m probably a little obsessed about checking it and getting back to people right away.” But as director of records services at Londons St. Josephs Health Care Centre, Glasgow also keenly appreciates the swiftness with which a well-timed message exchange can resolve an issue. “The benefits outweigh the distraction,” she concludes.

Millions agree. Forrester Research, which gathers Net statistics, estimates that more than a third of Web-connected North Americans use IM at least weekly. Within 18 months, an industry group expects the number of regular users to more than triple. That growth rate is one reason AOLs rivals are pushing so hard to loosen the Dulles, Va.-based Internet giant’s hold on IM. The bigger one is the future profits corporate strategists believe IM will unlock. Because users access IM services frequently, and often keep their windows open on-screen for long periods, those windows make appealing delivery vehicles for e-commerce advertising. IM is also being being launched for cellphones and personal digital assistants like the Palm. Many analysts believe

instant messaging is emerging as the “killer app” of wireless.

For it to reach its fullest potential, however, existing barriers between different IM networks must fall, allowing open communication among users of all services—just as conventional e-mail does. So far, AOL has refused to open AIM and ICQ to such inter-operability, citing unspecified security concerns. Its rivals, including Microsoft, Yahoo! and AT&T, are working on a protocol to get the services working together. They have asked regulators not to approve AOL’s acquisition of Time Warner until the issue is resolved.

Other companies, meanwhile, are looking for their own share of messaging profits. Several have developed programs that let IM users communicate directly by voice using microphones and speakers built into their computers—in effect turning their PCs into telephones. Both MSN Messenger and AIM now offer free calls from computers directly to phone numbers across North America. Last month, Eyeball.com of Vancouver launched a video-chat service that lets IM users equipped with PC video cameras see each other.

Down the road, believes Toronto market analyst Charley Whaley, “IM could become the glue that finally makes the Holy Grail of unified messaging’ possible.” Presence-awareness software will deliver incoming messages from any source to whatever digital device you happen to be using—PC, cellphone, pager or PDA—translating text to voice (or vice versa) as necessary. Many older Canadians may feel information overload has reached a bewildering new level. Chances are Alii Aziz and Mira Barnett will feel right at home. E3

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