The other day, while I was working from my home in Windsor, Nova Scotia, I was discussing the design of our Election 98 Web site with some of my cohorts at the Monitor's electronic edition. Then my mother-in-law dropped by to say hi. So we chatted for a few moments, until I had to get back to work. Then a few minutes later, my sister-in-law arrived, and we talked about family for a few minutes after that.
Oh, by the way, did I happen to mention that my cohorts are in Boston, my mother-in-law in Kizkalesi, Turkey, and my sister-in-law in Tampa, Fla.? How was I able to talk to all these people within minutes of each other, without once using a phone?
Simple. Instant messaging.
Instant messaging is one of the hot things online these days, but guess what? It also happens to be incredibly useful. The software, which is available for free from several vendors, is pretty straightforward. Once installed and operating, it opens a small text window on your desktop. You decided whom you want to send an instant message to from a buddy or friends list, type in your message, hit the send button, and it zooms instantly to your friend (who must have the same software installed on his or her machine).
Most of the best software also allows you to create an instant chat room, where you can invite several people to talk. But you get to decide who gets into the room.
Instant messaging software has been around for a while, but most industry experts didn't think it would amount to much. As an article on the online magazine CNET said recently, instant messaging seemed to combine the worst of e-mail (inflectionless typing) and the worst of telephones (constant interruptions).
Ah, but like any tool, it depends on how you use it.
For instance, one of the first things I did after my in-laws dropped by was to create a new user name known only to my fellow Monitor employees. Then I set the software's preferences so that only the people I selected could contact me. I was creating my own little club. I can't tell you how much this little club has saved us in phone calls between Boston and Windsor. And while it does depend on typing, that also tends to make you get to the point.
I would suggest some caution when using this software. You can set the preferences to allow only certain people to contact you. Do it. Otherwise, anyone on the system can drop in on you.
Most vendors require registration in exchange for the free software they offer, but give them only what they absolutely need to know, and then select the option that allows you to keep most of that private, if that's what you prefer.
Most important, never have a really important conversation online, in any form. Use the phone for sensitive stuff.
So where can you find this amazing software? Lots of places, but I'm going to restrict my recommendations to three vendors: Mirabilis's ICQ (http://www.icq.com/), which is the most popular version with more than 20 million people downloading a copy; AOL's Instant Message (http://www.aol.com), which is built into the newer versions of Netscape Navigator's browser; and Aquity's ichat (http://www.acuity.com/ichat/index.html).
All three versions are free, but require some form of registration. Each offers versions for Macs and PCs, but ICQ offers a version for just about anything you can think of, including PalmPilots and older 68K Mac machines. If you need to be in touch with a group of people on a regular basis and some are far away, or even on a different floor of your office building, instant messaging can be a useful addition to your online tool kit.
* Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org