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Instant messaging (IM)

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Instant messaging (IM) is a type of online chat which offers real-time text transmission over the Internet. It is sometimes used by deaf people to communicate online. 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 (a central server retransmits messages from the sender to the communication device).

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) 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. 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 such general-availability commercial online chat service (as opposed to PLATO, which was educational) was the CompuServe CB Simulator in 1980, created by CompuServe executive Alexander "Sandy" Trevor in Columbus, Ohio.

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 (now 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.


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