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Instant messaging

Instant messaging

Instant messaging (IM) technology is a type of online chat that offers real-time text transmission over the Internet. A LAN messenger operates in a similar way over a local area network. Short messages are typically transmitted between two parties, when each user chooses to complete a thought and select "send". Some IM applications can use push technology to provide real-time text, which transmits messages character by character, as they are composed. More advanced instant messaging can add file transfer, clickable hyperlinks, Voice over IP, or video chat.

Non-IM types of chat include multicast transmission, usually referred to as "chat rooms", where participants might be anonymous or might be previously known to each other (for example collaborators on a project that is using chat to facilitate communication). Instant messaging systems tend to facilitate connections between specified known users (often using a contact list also known as a "buddy list" or "friend list"). Depending on the IM protocol, the technical architecture can be peer-to-peer (direct point-to-point transmission) or client-server (an Instant message service center retransmits messages from the sender to the communication device).

By 2010, instant messaging over the Web was already in sharp decline,[1] in favor of messaging features on social networks. The most popular IM platforms, such as AIM, closed in 2017,[2] and Windows Live Messenger was merged into Skype.[3] Today, most instant messaging takes place on messaging apps which by 2014 had more users than social networks.[4]


Instant messaging is a set of communication technologies used for text-based communication between two or more participants over the Internet or other types of networks. IM–chat happens in real-time. Of importance is that online chat and instant messaging differ from other technologies such as email due to the perceived quasi-synchrony of the communications by the users. Some systems permit messages to be sent to users not then 'logged on' (offline messages), thus removing some differences between IM and email (often done by sending the message to the associated email account).

IM allows effective and efficient communication, allowing immediate receipt of acknowledgment or reply. However IM is basically not necessarily supported by transaction control. In many cases, instant messaging includes added features which can make it even more popular. For example, users may see each other via webcams, or talk directly for free over the Internet using a microphone and headphones or loudspeakers. Many applications allow file transfers, although they are usually limited in the permissible file-size.

It is usually possible to save a text conversation for later reference. Instant messages are often logged in a local message history, making it similar to the persistent nature of emails.


Though the term dates from the 1990s, instant messaging predates the Internet, first appearing on multi-user operating systems like Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) and Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (Multics)[5] in the mid-1960s. Initially, some of these systems were used as notification systems for services like printing, but quickly were used to facilitate communication with other users logged into the same machine. As networks developed, the protocols spread with the networks. Some of these used a peer-to-peer protocol (e.g. talk, ntalk and ytalk), while others required peers to connect to a server (see talker and IRC). The Zephyr Notification Service (still in use at some institutions) was invented at MIT's Project Athena in the 1980s to allow service providers to locate and send messages to users.

Parallel to instant messaging were early online chat facilities, the earliest of which was Talkomatic (1973) on the PLATO system, which allowed 5 people to chat simultaneously on a 512x512 plasma display (5 lines of text + 1 status line per person). During the bulletin board system (BBS) phenomenon that peaked during the 1980s, some systems incorporated chat features which were similar to instant messaging; Freelancin' Roundtable was one prime example. The first[6] such general-availability commercial online chat service (as opposed to PLATO, which was educational) was the CompuServe CB Simulator in 1980,[7] created by CompuServe executive Alexander "Sandy" Trevor in Columbus, Ohio.

Early instant messaging programs were primarily real-time text, where characters appeared as they were typed. This includes the Unix "talk" command line program, which was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some BBS chat programs (i.e. Celerity BBS) also used a similar interface. Modern implementations of real-time text also exist in instant messengers, such as AOL's Real-Time IM[8] as an optional feature.[9]

In the latter half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the Quantum Link online service for Commodore 64 computers offered user-to-user messages between concurrently connected customers, which they called "On-Line Messages" (or OLM for short), and later "FlashMail." Quantum Link later became America Online and made AOL Instant Messenger (AIM, discussed later). While the Quantum Link client software ran on a Commodore 64, using only the Commodore's PETSCII text-graphics, the screen was visually divided into sections and OLMs would appear as a yellow bar saying "Message From:" and the name of the sender along with the message across the top of whatever the user was already doing, and presented a list of options for responding.[10] As such, it could be considered a type of graphical user interface (GUI), albeit much more primitive than the later Unix, Windows and Macintosh based GUI IM software. OLMs were what Q-Link called "Plus Services" meaning they charged an extra per-minute fee on top of the monthly Q-Link access costs.

Modern, Internet-wide, GUI-based messaging clients as they are known today, began to take off in the mid-1990s with PowWow, ICQ, and AOL Instant Messenger. Similar functionality was offered by CU-SeeMe in 1992; though primarily an audio/video chat link, users could also send textual messages to each other. AOL later acquired Mirabilis, the authors of ICQ; a few years later ICQ (then owned by AOL) was awarded two patents for instant messaging by the U.S. patent office. Meanwhile, other companies developed their own software; (Excite, MSN, Ubique, and Yahoo!), each with its own proprietary protocol and client; users therefore had to run multiple client applications if they wished to use more than one of these networks. In 1998, IBM released IBM Lotus Sametime, a product based on technology acquired when IBM bought Haifa-based Ubique and Lexington-based Databeam.

In 2000, an open-source application and open standards-based protocol called Jabber was launched. The protocol was standardized under the name Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP). XMPP servers could act as gateways to other IM protocols, reducing the need to run multiple clients. Multi-protocol clients can use any of the popular IM protocols by using additional local libraries for each protocol. IBM Lotus Sametime's November 2007 release added IBM Lotus Sametime Gateway support for XMPP.

As of 2010, social networking providers often offer IM abilities. Facebook Chat is a form of instant messaging, and Twitter can be thought of as a Web 2.0 instant messaging system. Similar server-side chat features are part of most dating websites, such as OKCupid or PlentyofFish. The spread of smartphones and similar devices in the late 2000s also caused increased competition with conventional instant messaging, by making text messaging services still more ubiquitous.

Many instant messaging services offer video calling features, voice over IP and web conferencing services. Web conferencing services can integrate both video calling and instant messaging abilities. Some instant messaging companies are also offering desktop sharing, IP radio, and IPTV to the voice and video features.

The term "Instant Messenger" is a service mark of Time Warner[11] and may not be used in software not affiliated with AOL in the United States. For this reason, in April 2007, the instant messaging client formerly named Gaim (or gaim) announced that they would be renamed "Pidgin".[12]

2010s: Messaging apps replace IM

In the 2010s, more people started to use messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Signal and Line rather than instant messaging like AIM. For example, WhatsApp was founded in 2009, and Facebook acquired in 2014, by which time it already had half a billion users.[13]


Each modern IM service generally provides its own client, either a separately installed piece of software, or a browser-based client. These usually only work within the same IM network, although some allow limited function with other services. Third party client software applications exist that will connect with most of the major IM services.


Standard complementary instant messaging applications offer functions like file transfer, contact list(s), the ability to hold several simultaneous conversations, etc. These may be all the functions that a small business needs, but larger organizations will require more sophisticated applications that can work together. The solution to finding applications capable of this is to use enterprise versions of instant messaging applications. These include titles like XMPP, Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Communicator, etc., which are often integrated with other enterprise applications such as workflow systems. These enterprise applications, or enterprise application integration (EAI), are built to certain constraints, namely storing data in a common format.

There have been several attempts to create a unified standard for instant messaging: IETF's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), Application Exchange (APEX), Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP), the open XML-based Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), and Open Mobile Alliance's Instant Messaging and Presence Service developed specifically for mobile devices.

Most attempts at producing a unified standard for the major IM providers (AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft) have failed, and each continues to use its own proprietary protocol.

However, while discussions at IETF were stalled, Reuters signed the first inter-service provider connectivity agreement in September 2003. This agreement enabled AIM, ICQ and MSN Messenger users to talk with Reuters Messaging counterparts and vice versa. Following this, Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL agreed to a deal in which Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 users would also have the possibility to talk to public instant messaging users. This deal established SIP/SIMPLE as a standard for protocol interoperability and established a connectivity fee for accessing public instant messaging groups or services. Separately, on October 13, 2005, Microsoft and Yahoo! announced that by the 3rd quarter of 2006 they would interoperate using SIP/SIMPLE, which was followed, in December 2005, by the AOL and Google strategic partnership deal in which Google Talk users would be able to communicate with AIM and ICQ users provided they have an AIM account.

There are two ways to combine the many disparate protocols:

  • Combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM client application.

  • Combine the many disparate protocols inside the IM server application. This approach moves the task of communicating with the other services to the server. Clients need not know or care about other IM protocols. For example, LCS 2005 Public IM Connectivity. This approach is popular in XMPP servers; however, the so-called transport projects suffer the same reverse engineering difficulties as any other project involved with closed protocols or formats.

Some approaches allow organizations to deploy their own, private instant messaging network by enabling them to restrict access to the server (often with the IM network entirely behind their firewall) and administer user permissions. Other corporate messaging systems allow registered users to also connect from outside the corporation LAN, by using an encrypted, firewall-friendly, HTTPS-based protocol. Usually, a dedicated corporate IM server has several advantages, such as pre-populated contact lists, integrated authentication, and better security and privacy.

Certain networks have made changes to prevent them from being used by such multi-network IM clients. For example, Trillian had to release several revisions and patches to allow its users to access the MSN, AOL, and Yahoo! networks, after changes were made to these networks. The major IM providers usually cite the need for formal agreements, and security concerns as reasons for making these changes.

The use of proprietary protocols has meant that many instant messaging networks have been incompatible and users have been unable to reach users on other networks.[14] This may have allowed social networking with IM-like features and text messaging an opportunity to gain market share at the expense of IM.[15]

IM language

Users sometimes make use of internet slang or text speak to abbreviate common words or expressions to quicken conversations or reduce keystrokes. The language has become widespread, with well-known expressions such as 'lol' translated over to face-to-face language.

Emotions are often expressed in shorthand, such as the abbreviation LOL, BRB and TTYL; respectively laugh(ing) out loud, be right back, and talk to you later.

Some, however, attempt to be more accurate with emotional expression over IM. Real time reactions such as (chortle) (snort) (guffaw) or (eye-roll) are becoming more popular. Also there are certain standards that are being introduced into mainstream conversations including, '#' indicates the use of sarcasm in a statement and '*' which indicates a spelling mistake and/or grammatical error in the prior message, followed by a correction.[16]

Business application

Instant messaging has proven to be similar to personal computers, email, and the World Wide Web, in that its adoption for use as a business communications medium was driven primarily by individual employees using consumer software at work, rather than by formal mandate or provisioning by corporate information technology departments. Tens of millions of the consumer IM accounts in use are being used for business purposes by employees of companies and other organizations.

In response to the demand for business-grade IM and the need to ensure security and legal compliance, a new type of instant messaging, called "Enterprise Instant Messaging" ("EIM") was created when Lotus Software launched IBM Lotus Sametime in 1998. Microsoft followed suit shortly thereafter with Microsoft Exchange Instant Messaging, later created a new platform called Microsoft Office Live Communications Server, and released Office Communications Server 2007 in October 2007. Oracle Corporation has also jumped into the market recently with its Oracle Beehive unified collaboration software.[17] Both IBM Lotus and Microsoft have introduced federation between their EIM systems and some of the public IM networks so that employees may use one interface to both their internal EIM system and their contacts on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo. As of 2010, leading EIM platforms include IBM Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Communications Server, Jabber XCP and Cisco Unified Presence. Industry-focused EIM platforms such as Reuters Messaging and Bloomberg Messaging also provide IM abilities to financial services companies.

The adoption of IM across corporate networks outside of the control of IT organizations creates risks and liabilities for companies who do not effectively manage and support IM use. Companies implement specialized IM archiving and security products and services to mitigate these risks and provide safe, secure, productive instant messaging abilities to their employees. IM is increasingly becoming a feature of enterprise software rather than a stand-alone application.

Types of products

IM products can usually be categorised into two types: Enterprise Instant Messaging (EIM)[18] and Consumer Instant Messaging (CIM).[19] Enterprise solutions use an internal IM server, however this isn't always feasible, particularly for smaller businesses with limited budgets. The second option, using a CIM provides the advantage of being inexpensive to implement and has little need for investing in new hardware or server software.

For corporate use, encryption and conversation archiving are usually regarded as important features due to security concerns.[20] There are also a bunch of open source encrypting messengers.[21] Sometimes the use of different operating systems in organizations requires use of software that supports more than one platform. For example, many software companies use Windows in administration departments but have software developers who use Linux.

An Instant Message Service Center (IMSC) is a network element in the mobile telephone network which delivers instant messages. When a user sends an IM message to another user, the phone sends the message to the IMSC. The IMSC stores the message and delivers it to the destination user when they are available. The IMSC usually has a configurable time limit for how long it will store the message. Few companies who make many of the IMSCs in use in the GSM world are Miyowa, Followap and OZ. Other players include Acision, Colibria, Ericsson, Nokia, Comverse Technology, Now Wireless, Jinny Software, Miyowa, Feelingk and few others.

Serverless messengers

Major IM services are controlled by their corresponding companies. They usually follow the client-server model when all clients have to first connect to the central server. This requires users to trust this server because messages can generally be accessed by the company. Companies can be compelled to reveal their user's communication.[22] Companies can also suspend user accounts for any reason. There is the class of instant messengers that uses the serverless model, which doesn't require servers, and the IM network consists only of clients. There are several serverless messengers: RetroShare, Tox, Bitmessage, Ricochet, Ring. Serverless messengers are generally more secure because they involve fewer parties.

Conversational commerce

Conversational commerce is e-commerce via various means of messaging:

  • live chat on e-commerce Web sites,

  • live chat on messaging apps such as WeChat, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp[23]

  • chatbots on messaging apps or Web sites

  • via voice assistants[24]

Security risks

Crackers (malicious or black hat hackers) have consistently used IM networks as vectors for delivering phishing attempts, "poison URLs", and virus-laden file attachments from 2004 to the present, with over 1100 discrete attacks listed by the IM Security Center[25] in 2004–2007. Hackers use two methods of delivering malicious code through IM: delivery of viruses, trojan horses, or spyware within an infected file, and the use of "socially engineered" text with a web address that entices the recipient to click on a URL connecting him or her to a website that then downloads malicious code.

Viruses, computer worms, and trojans usually propagate by sending themselves rapidly through the infected user's contact list. An effective attack using a poisoned URL may reach tens of thousands of users in a short period when each user's contact list receives messages appearing to be from a trusted friend. The recipients click on the web address, and the entire cycle starts again. Infections may range from nuisance to criminal, and are becoming more sophisticated each year.

IM connections sometimes occur in plain text, making them vulnerable to eavesdropping. Also, IM client software often requires the user to expose open UDP ports to the world, raising the threat posed by potential security vulnerabilities.[26]

Compliance risks

In addition to the malicious code threat, the use of instant messaging at work also creates a risk of non-compliance to laws and regulations governing use of electronic communications in businesses.

In the United States

In the United States alone there are over 10,000 laws and regulations related to electronic messaging and records retention.[27] The better-known of these include the Sarbanes–Oxley Act, HIPAA, and SEC 17a-3.

Clarification from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) was issued to member firms in the financial services industry in December, 2007, noting that "electronic communications", "email", and "electronic correspondence" may be used interchangeably and can include such forms of electronic messaging as instant messaging and text messaging.[28] Changes to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, effective December 1, 2006, created a new category for electronic records which may be requested during discovery in legal proceedings.


Most nations also regulate use of electronic messaging and electronic records retention in similar fashion as the United States. The most common regulations related to IM at work involve the need to produce archived business communications to satisfy government or judicial requests under law. Many instant messaging communications fall into the category of business communications that must be archived and retrievable.

Security and archiving

In the early 2000s, a new class of IT security provider emerged to provide remedies for the risks and liabilities faced by corporations who chose to use IM for business communications. The IM security providers created new products to be installed in corporate networks for the purpose of archiving, content-scanning, and security-scanning IM traffic moving in and out of the corporation. Similar to the e-mail filtering vendors, the IM security providers focus on the risks and liabilities described above.

With rapid adoption of IM in the workplace, demand for IM security products began to grow in the mid-2000s. By 2007, the preferred platform for the purchase of security software had become the "computer appliance", according to IDC, who estimate that by 2008, 80% of network security products will be delivered via an appliance.[29]

By 2014 however, the level of safety offered by instant messengers was still extremely poor. According to a scorecard made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, only 7 out of 39 instant messengers received a perfect score, whereas the most popular instant messengers at the time only attained a score of 2 out of 7.[30][31] A number of studies have shown that IM services are quite vulnerable for providing user privacy.[32][33]

User base

More than 100 million users

Instant messenger clientCompanyUsage
DiscordDiscord inc.130 million users (May 2018)[34]
eBuddy XMSeBuddy250 million users (September 2011)[35]
Facebook MessengerFacebook900 million active users (April 2016)[36]
iMessageApple Inc.140 million users (June 2012)[37]
Kik MessengerKik Interactive300 million users (May 2016)[38]
LineNaver Corporation217 million monthly active users (2016)[39]
SkypeMicrosoft Corporation560 million users (April 2010),[40][41] 34 million peak online (February 2012)[42]
SnapchatSnap Inc.301 million monthly active users (2016)[43]
TelegramTelegram Messenger LLP200 million monthly active users (March 2018)[44]
WeChatTencent Holdings Limited889 million users (2016)[45]
WhatsAppFacebook1200 million monthly active users (January 2017)[46]

Other platforms

Instant messenger clientCompanyUsage
BlackBerry MessengerBlackBerry91 million total users (October 2014)[47]
Hike MessengerHike Messenger70 million active users (October 2015)[48]
Gadu-GaduGG Network S.A.6.5 million users active daily (majority in Poland) (June 2010)[49]
IBM SametimeIBM Corp.15 million (enterprise) users (Unknown)
ICQICQ LLC.11 million total users (July 2014)[50]
IMVUIMVU, inc.1 million users (June 2007)[51]
PaltalkPaltalk.com5.5 million monthly unique users (August 2013)[52]
SignalSignal Foundation
XMPP (Protocol used by multiple clients)XMPP Standards Foundation1200+ million (September 2011)[53]

Closed services and such with unclear activity

Instant messenger clientCompanyUsage
AIMAOL, IncClosed in December 2017
MXitMXit Lifestyle (Pty) Ltd.[54]Closed in September 2016
Windows Live MessengerMicrosoft CorporationClosed in April 2013, China in October 2014
XfireXfire, Inc.Closed in June 2015
Yahoo! MessengerYahoo!, Inc.Closed in July 2018
RTCrtcim.com10 million users

See also

  • Ambient awareness

  • Communications protocol

  • Mass collaboration

  • Message-oriented middleware

  • Operator messaging

  • Social media

  • Text messaging

  • Unified communications / Messaging

  • Comparison of instant messaging clients

  • Comparison of instant messaging protocols

  • Code Shikara (Computer worm)


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