When Erica Wrightson was in the seventh grade, she became a member of the first group of Americans to use, really use, instant messaging as part of everyday life. From her first days in junior high school to her departure for college five years later, Wrightson amassed some 150 friends on her AOL AIM buddy list. After school and into the evening hours, her online chat window became a more or less permanent fixture on the household computer. "It was a nice distraction," she recalls. "I'd be writing a paper and then have this window pop up with someone saying hello to you. It was very casual conversation. 'What's up? What are you doing?' IMing allowed you to make plans very quickly, without having to make a bunch of phone calls. It was very good if you are trying to arrange something with a bunch of people-you can talk to 10 friends at once."
Looking back, Wrightson thought the medium was as much a distraction as a social connector. "It was procrastination, definitely, part of the mindless Internet surfing. It meant that if you were bored or lonely, you could log in, see who else was on and talk to anyone at any time. There were some people who left their IM on all day." Wrightson was the first really seasoned IM user I had ever watched in action. With her hands flying over the keyboard one evening, she kept two simultaneous conversations going, each with its own set of participants. The line-by-line scroll of overlapping bursts of conversation seemed closer to the clipped banter of a control tower or police dispatcher. It resembled everyday English, but not quite.
Then Wrightson left home for the University of California at Santa Barbara, and her IM habits changed. "I grew to hate IM because it's really distracting-you can't turn on your computer without having the AIM thing pop up and people start talking to you immediately. You can sit for hours talking and it's hard to pull away." With the higher demands of college papers to write, the distraction of IM no longer beckoned.
These days, Wrightson mostly uses IM to correspond with a few friends going to school on the East Coast. "Now that they are much further away, IM is a way to keep in touch, as opposed to just filler conversation. Few of the new friends made in college have made it to her buddy list. Communication is more likely by cell phone or in person. "I'm no longer stuck at home," she says. "I'm driving around, very independent." Meetings are often more face to face than virtual. To meet new people, many students using a popular website called Thefacebook-an online directory, with access limited to their own college or university.
Sooner or later, Wrightson will graduate and enter the workforce. But that medium she found so distracting in college may well live on to distract her each and every working day. Whether she works for a large or small company, or even if she launches a startup of her own, she may wind up applying the IM skills she learned in seventh grade. The ability to conduct multiple online conversations while, say, trying to produce a monthly report may be an informal part of the job description.
Wrightson already knows this. She pointed me to Ken Richards, a family friend whose company, Latin Channels, organizes trade events in Latin America for the IT industry, with customers spread over the U.
Richards also uses IM as a kind of back-channel to a telephone conversation. "Say I'm negotiating on rates with a hotel. My CFO might not be officially on the conference call, but she could be listening in. We might then use IM do communicate about out strategy-what we say next, what we don't say at all-all while the telephone conversation is ongoing. It's as if she is whispering in my ear, but it's much more effective."
From Finland to the world
Instant messaging's popularity in both the work force and the teenage social fabric has been a long time in coming. The grandfather of the medium is a service called Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, invented by Jarkko Oikarinen, a Finish researcher now involved with rendering medical images. Back in the summer of 1988, Oikarinen was working for the Department of Information Processing Science at the University of Oulu in Finland. Finding himself with extra time, Oikarinen started looking at a bulletin board system that he administered, called Oulu box. Oulu box ran a buggy program called Multi User Talk, or MUT. Aiming to fix it, and inspired by another program, Bit Net Relay Chat, Oikarinen created IRC. In the earliest days, the entire population of IRC rarely exceeded 10 users. Eventually, it spread south to other universities before hopping Finland's borders and running worldwide.
From there the history gets muddy. Vegard Engen, an old time IRC operator, recalls in the summer of 1996 when a not well-liked U.
In some ways, the chaotic nature of the medium's evolution is appropriate to how the medium has often been used. Ross Gynn, who operates The Linux Mirror Project website, observed in an email correspondence that "IRC has a reputation for being the underworld of the Internet. While you get a lot of good people and a lot of great channels, you may also come across channels full of spammers, warez bots, and appalling use of grammar and the English language, crackers, DoS [denial of service] botnets, virus writers, and the ilk. It's a very mixed bag on the whole, although you can generally avoid most of it by staying clear of the channels/
In the early days, users first loaded a client, then mastered a set of commands that allowed them to enter and exit a specific channel, change a nickname, query information about a user, and broadcast a message to the entire group or a single individual. Because of the emphasis on speed, English language acronyms developed quickly: BRB = be right back; ROTFL = rolling on the floor laughing; IMHO = in my humble opinion. The commercial services came later. Microsoft introduced its messenger service in July 1999 and six days later, it was hosting 700,000 people. By mid-1999, AOL's AIM had more than 45 million users. Yahoo! Messenger launched in June of 1999.
These days, sounds and images may accompany text. Writing in the New York Times, Eva Hagberg recalls how she had used video IM to make a virtual appearance at a party. "By the time I closed the chat window and unplugged my webcam, I had seen [my host's] wife and his dog, and told him his children were beautiful." She notes that while video chatting has been around for a while, cheaper cameras and broadband connections are bringing the format to the masses. She recalls one New York programmer who broadcast his Christmas party and found, to his surprise, that rather than making his guests more timid, they actually enjoyed having the anonymous audience-with one guest giving an impromptu strip show in front of the camera.
Increasingly, instant messaging is also the launch point for voice connections. For example AOL's ICQ service recently launched a push-to-talk service and a multi-party [VOIP] PC voice product. Chamath Palihapitiya, the general manager at AOL heading both the ICQ and AIM services, thinks that Asia and Europe, where IRQ is most popular, will embrace the technology soonest because the voice market is less competitive than in the U.
Connecting Knight Ridder Digital
Back in the U.
Koon also uses IM to connect with people who are not employees of Knight-Ridder, but have a business relationship with the company. "These days, your relationship with people outside your company is part of your professional social network. I may call someone at another company to say we are dealing with a problem, remind them that we met at a conference a year ago, and establish a relationship. IM can be a part of that, as well." Koon says that one of IM's advantages is that it combines the telephone's interactivity with the polite delay of email. Unlike a call, the respondent is not duty-bound to reply within seconds. Instead, people adhere to an unstated corporate etiquette that allows people not to reply immediately, but get back in a few minutes. Koon also uses Yahoo! Messaging options to indicate with an icon that he is away from his desk.
IMing can be a good medium for companies involved with outsourcing. Nicholas Seet, the chief technology officer of Auditude, a firm that tracks radio and television advertisements on behalf of advertisers, uses IM to connect people in Southern California and beyond with 20 programmers in Bangladesh. "For us all to get into the office every day would be impossible," he says. "Even with conference calls, it's very difficult to get everybody together at the same time. IMing gives us the interactivity of a conference call without having to set up all of the timings and dial-ins."
Seet also likes the clipped informality of the medium. If he wants to know, say, the status of a radio station the firm is monitoring, he can send an IM query without the time-commitment of a phone call. He finds the one-line brevity of the exchanges perfect for brisk working conditions. At the same time, says Seet, the "instant" in "instant messaging" can give it an edge over email. "You don't wonder: did a person get your message? Is he working on a reply? IM has much better real-time interaction." Seet has about 40 people on his buddy list, including his wife who works out of state. The medium allows the two to communicate during business hours without the distraction of a phone call.
Like Erica Wrightson, Seet uses AOL AIM, liking the response time, though not the interface. But the technology didn't ultimately matter. "Everybody I know uses AIM, so even though I was always a hardcore ICQ person, I switched over to AIM because it had the critical mass of people that I needed to talk to."
Indeed, Seet's switch to another service is unusual, the IM equivalent of changing citizenships. Users, especially in business, have long called for a merging of the networks-and some clients, like the open source GAIM application, will support several, but each buddy list is still maintained separately. "We think interoperability is a good thing and it should happen, given the right business terms," says AOL's Palihapitiya. "We've already done one interoperability deal with Microsoft through the Microsoft Live communications server, where an enterprise can license in the Microsoft LCS product and then support interoperability between Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL. On a consumer landscape, I think the market will eventually get there. We're talking to all the parties about how an interoperability deal would work beyond the business deal that we've already done."
Interoperability would mean that IM services would differentiate themselves even more on features and the look-and-feel of the client. Meanwhile, the name of the game for AOL and its competitors is to attract IM users as young as possible, because brand loyalties and critical masses form early. The buddy list you compile in childhood will change over the years-but it is apt to remain a buddy list for life.
Sidebar: A conversation with Chamath Palihapitiya, AOL's General Manager for Instant Messaging.
Chamath Palihapitiya came to AOL's IM group via a circuitous route. An investment banker, he began work at AOL about six years ago, helping build AOL's music service then moving to AOL Entertainment Group. He launched a music channel for TimeWarner Cable, then the AOL subscription service: "the big mother lode business that is AOL's bread and butter." That's what he was doing until last November when AOL announced it was launching a Web portal strategy to compete more directly with Yahoo! and MSN. "Management wanted to find a couple of the executives who had a very traditional media background and had a lot of experience launching web services, which I did." So now Palihapitiya's latest job is running AOL's sibling IM services, ICQ and AIM. He spoke by telephone from AOL's headquarters in Virginia.
- AOL offers two services. Who is using which?
- We primarily focus AIM domestically in the U.
S. and ICQ internationally, mostly because that's the way that the brands have grown up. AIM is so dominant in the U. S. that it makes sense to continue to make sure that we are the leader here, and ICQ has always done a good job of being relevant in multiple categories, especially in Asia, so we focus ICQ there rather than having to introduce a new brand.
- The ICQ 5 client now offers two voice services: ICQ Voice Chat and Push-to-Talk. Why?
- We found that both feed the same market, but different behaviors. Sometimes consumers didn't want to establish a persistent connection with someone on the other end. They just wanted to relay a quick message like, "hey, I'm leaving for lunch now." You don't need to initiate a persistent, high-quality voice conversation to do that-just a short, bursty message.
- What about IMing on mobile phones?
- The distinction between PCs and mobiles is disappearing-the two are merging-much more quickly in Asia than in the United States, but it's happening in both markets. We make sure that our products can work on mobile: we have a text SMS solution, support MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service] for things like photos, and a mobile messaging client for phones that support those applications. In all of those cases, we try to make sure that you can not only use a PC to reach someone on mobile, but the reverse.
- In talking to users, IMing seems to fall somewhere between a phone conversation and email. Is that where you see it?
- That's an intelligent way to calibrate it. And if you do instant messaging right, it bleeds to both ends of that spectrum-because from IM you can launch a voice conversation or an email conversation. By contrast, if you are using an email package, that's all you can do, and the same is true with a phone. We've created an application where you could be typing, then have an instant messaging conversation, then pick up the phone through ICQ or AIM, and suddenly be talking. Or you could follow through at your leisure through ICQ or AIM with an email.
- Where does video come into this?
- In terms of the ranked priority of consumer behaviors, voice, email and IM are the three big things that consumers want to do. Video is probably a close fourth. It becomes more relevant on the business application side.
- IM services are something of a horse race. Where do you see AOL in the pack?
- In the United States we are the largest by a significant order of magnitude. When you combine AOL and AIM, we are 100 percent larger that our closest competitor, which I believe is Yahoo! MSN is a distant, distant third. Worldwide, we and Microsoft are neck and neck.
- Are you concerned about viruses?
- We are single-handedly the safest network; the only company that hasn't been attacked is AOL. We've applied the same investment in securing our email environment-and we are the most spam-free, safest email environment-to instant messaging. Microsoft has been hacked very publicly. People have distributed viruses through them. Yahoo! has been hacked. There have been phishing scams and spim [spam + IM]-all that you've never heard of from AOL because we've spent a lot of time and money to secure our environment. We want it to be clean. [A recent report from CNET seems to agree, saying that the majority of attacks so far have used Microsoft's MSN Messenger.]
- How do you host the services?
- AIM and ICQ both leverage the same back end, with the same host infrastructure-and that all sits in Virginia. We have two client teams, one that builds the AIM product, that is also in Virginia. My ICQ team is based in Tel Aviv, Israel. There are about 100 people always working on the AIM back-end at any one time, and about the equivalent on the ICQ system.
- What about the server infrastructure?
- It's a traditional client/
server model. We use a proprietary protocol that we developed about five or six years ago, called Oscar. It's relatively well documented, and, over time, we've refined it to where it's very stable and flexible. We can turn out new clients very quickly. Right now, we are rebuilding our code base on the client side to make the application lighter and more flexible. Our plug-in architecture is going to get better and we're going to expose ways that third parties can build applications quickly and easily, via scripting as well as building client side code.