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Oh Instant Messaging, I hardly knew you

For many years, I've been a big fan of Instant Messaging as a way to communicate with friends, especially those in other parts of the country. Sure e-mail works, but if you want to have a conversation with someone immediately, with a lot of back and forth, IM was the way to go. I jumped on the IM bandwagon all the way back in the ICQ days (and no, I don't remember my number). Followed by a bunch of years maintaining multiple protocols at the 'Big 3' at the time; AOL Instant Messaging (AIM), MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. Many of us recall the years of running three different clients on our desktop at all times, because all of our friends used different systems. Thankfully, it wasn't too long before multi-protocol clients came into play and we could start to consolidate.

Google was a late comer to the market, but it's GTalk Instant Messenger caught on fast. It was slim and trim and since GMail was the rage, everyone had a log-in. Slowly, over the course of 5 years or so, GTalk became my single IM platform. Most of my friends had migrated to it, and, anyway, I had grown distant from the couple of hold-outs who hadn't made the switch. This was the state of thing for a long time. Until recently.

In the past couple of years, the IM has undergone a huge shift, along with the rest of the tech industry, because of the advent of mobile computing. Before smartphones, people would use SMS for short conversations with friends, but unless you had one of those cool full-keyboard phones, it wasn't an ideal solution. Then along come phones with full on-screen keyboards, and most importantly tablets. All of a sudden it seems that SMS style messaging is the way to go, and if you're not on board you've missed the boat.

We now have a completely new playing field of contestants in the messaging arena, and all of them have a decidedly mobile bent.

  • Apple's iMessage was an early mover in this area, and seamlessly merged your SMS and iMessage experience on their iPhone product. It's only been very recently that iMessage has made it's way to OS X. However, it's strictly an Apple eco-system product.
  • Facebook entered the arena with it's Facebook Messenger, completely dismantling their old e-mail style messaging application in favor of something that looks and feels like SMS on a phone. Facebook Messenger on a smartphone is all over the place. To use Facebook Messenger on your computer, you need to use their website built-in application (or try and get one of the multi-clients to work, which has been hit/miss at times)
  • Then there's the newcomer, WhatsApp with it's direct SMS replacement app for phones. It doesn't even attempt to offer a desktop client experience. 
  • Microsoft has announced that it's killing it's old MSN Messenger, ever since it acquired Skype. Microsoft is taking a very different route in the messaging wars, by using a full featured video conferencing service, and extending it down to the messaging level. Whereas, other services are starting at messages and moving up to video.
  • BlackBerry Messaging has also escaped the confines of it's single platform and it now available for other phones as an SMS type replacement.
  • Finally, my beloved GTalk is getting shoved aside to make room for Google+ Hangouts. Google realized that they had too many messaging products, so they merged them all into one. However, they decided to forgo their earlier adoption of standard messaging protocols, and go with a proprietary standard. This means that most of the multi-clients will stop working at some point in the future. They also have moved away from providing desktop clients, outside of their Chrome Browser experience, instead focusing on apps for phones and tablets.
There is one place however, where Instant Messaging seems to still be going strong is inside a corporate environment. Many corporations still use Instant Messaging as a way to quickly communicate with co-workers. However, it's apparent that even in this environment, the mobile is still rearing it's head. Many of the enterprise level systems for doing corporate IM now have mobile apps for your phone or tablet, so you can stay connected wherever you are. 

I'll be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about the change to Instant Messaging. With the loss of so many desktop based clients, it's changed the experience. Before, you would have a list of friends who were "online" at the time, and you could start up a conversation with them. Now, because everyone is connected all the time, you never know if that person is truly available or not. Some of the services try to provide some sense of "presence", showing you an icon if the service thinks the person is around, but they're not as robust and accurate as the old services. As with everything, it seems that progress marches on, and things change. However, I'd like to take a moment of silence to remember the way things used to be, with AIM, MSN and YIM all humming away in the background of my desktop. Oh wait... these things were constantly beeping at you, telling you who was logging on, logging off, and who can forget the distinct sounds AIM made when you got a new message. Oh well, silence is overrated. I'm going to go G+ Hangout my friends.... or maybe Skype them... though FB Messenger might be good too.... wonder how many are on iMessage.....

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