The history of IM can be traced back almost as far as the electronic personal computer, itself. As academic institutions and research labs became the first venues for PC use in the early 1970s, programmers began to develop a means of communicating with others through a system of text-based messaging. This new messaging system allowed people to chat with other users of the same computer or a machine connected on a local network at their respective university. Today, the desires of those early IM pioneers led to the development of a thriving and competitive IM market today.
Three different IM applications emerged during the 70s and 80s that would serve as the basis for present-day IM. The first, called a peer-to-peer protocol, allowed for communication between two users of the same computer. As developers created a means of networking computers, so did programmers behind the peer-to-peer protocol system; now, users from across campus, or in some instances, across town at a sister facility, could access these two-way, text-based messages without being logged on to same PC.
In 1983, Mark Jenks, a Milwaukee, WI, high school student, built "Talk," a system which allowed students at Washington High School to access a first-generation system of digital bulletin boards, social networking rooms and the ability to private message other users. The application, also known as a talker, required users to sign-in to the network-based application using a handle or “screenname”. In short order, talkers began popping up across the country, hosted on private business and school networks through the mid 90s.
Similar in nature, Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, helped expose the journalism industry to the potential Internet communications could be. Created by Jarkko Oikarinen in August 1988, IRC allowed users to chat in multi-user groups known as "channels," send private messages to other users and share files through a data transfer system.
In August, 1982, Commodore International released an 8-bit PC that would revolutionize not only the computer world, but the next generation of IM. The Commodore 64, which sold more than 30 million units making it the best-selling single PC model of all time, offered home users the opportunity to become accustomed to electronic computing with over 10,000 commercial software titles, including the primitive Internet service, Quantum Link.
Using a text-based system called PETSCII, users could send online messages to each other via a telephone modem and the Quantum Link service. Without the graphic processors or advanced video cards of today, an early Internet user's instant messaging experience wasn't too exciting; after sending an online message, the user on the receiving end would see a yellow stripe across the Quantum software signaling they had received a message from another user. That user then had the option of responding or ignoring the message. Online messages were not standard with the Q-Link service, however, and resulted in an additional per-minute fee when users were billed for their monthly service cost.
However, the need for IRC changed on August 19, 1991, when a coup d'état attempt was staged on the capitol of the Soviet Union. The opposition, a group of Communist Party leaders protesting a recent union treaty negotiated by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, prevented journalists from reporting on the events through an opposition-enforced media blackout. Without the ability to send news via television or through wire services, journalists turned to IRC to garner information on the offensive from colleagues and eyewitnesses in the field. The application was also be used by journalists to share news during the Gulf War.
In the early 1990s, people began to spend more and more time on the Internet. Creative software developers designed chat- room software and set up chat rooms on Web servers. In a chat room, a group of people can type in messages that are seen by everyone in the "room." Instant messages are basically a chat room for just two people. Instant messaging really exploded on the Internet scene in November 1996. That's when Mirabilis introduced ICQ, a free instant-messaging utility that anyone could use. ICQ, shorthand for "I seek you," uses a software application, called a client, that resides on your computer. The client communicates with an ICQ server whenever you are online and the client is running.
In the 90s, Quantum Link changed its name to America Online, and helped usher in a new era of IM. While ICQ, a text-based messenger, became the first to market itself to the masses in 1996, the debut of AIM in 1997 became a turning point for the industry as thousands of largely young, tech-savvy users leaped at the opportunity to share instant messages with each other. In 1997, AOL, considered the pioneer of the online community, gave its users the ability to talk in real time with each other through chat rooms and instant messages. In June 1998, AOL acquired Mirabilis and ICQ. Yahoo launched its own Yahoo! Messenger in 1998, followed by MSN in 1999, and a host of others throughout the 2000s. Google Talk was released in 2005.
Up until 2000, IM users had no choice but to run multiple IM applications to access friends across different networks. That is, until Jabber changed the rules. Known as a multi-protocol IM, Jabber united the IMs by acting as a single gateway to accessing multiple IM clients at once. Users of such clients could now simultaneously chat with friends on their AIM, Yahoo! and MSN contact lists within a single application. Other multi-protocol clients include Pidgin, Trillian, Adium and Miranda.
Most IM programs provide these features: Instant messages - Send notes back and forth with a friend who is online Chat - Create a chat room with friends or co-workers Web links - Share links to your favorite Web sites Video - Send and view videos, and chat face to face with friends Images - Look at an image stored on your friend's computer Sounds - Play sounds for your friends Files - Share files by sending them directly to your friends Talk - Use the Internet instead of a phone to actually talk with friends Streaming content - Real-time or near-real-time stock quotes and news Mobile capabilities - Send instant messages from your cell phone
Using your computer or device's Internet connection, the IM client will attempt to communicate with the network's server using a protocol. Protocols tell the server specifically how to communicate with the client. Once connected, you will enter your user ID, also known as a screen name, and password to log in to the network. Screen names are typically created by users when they first sign up to join an instant messaging service. Most instant messengers are free to join. The screen name and password information is sent to the server, which checks to ensure the account is accurate and in good standing. All of this happens within seconds.
The data sent to your computer is sent in multiple units called packets, smaller bits of information which leave the network server and are received by your IM client. The data is then collected, organized and presented as on/offline friends on your contacts list. From this point, the collection and distribution of information between your computer and the network's server is continuous, open and instantaneous, making the lightning-quick speed and convenience of instant messaging possible. The server will send your “buddy list” data (created during your previous logins), including notification of which contacts are available to chat.
In addition to text-based messages, you can also transmit video, audio, photos, files and other digital media quickly and directly using their favorite client software. If you have IM logging enabled on your client, a history of your conversation is written to files stored either directly on your computer or to the network's server. Finding IM history within the software and account files on your computer hard drive can be done with a simple search. You are ready to chat with your “buddy”. The client rapidly breaks up your message into packets, they are delivered directly to the recipient on their computer/device. As you chat with your contact, the window appears identical to both parties, messages appear almost instantly of being sent.
Once you sign out, the IM client software and server go ensure that you no longer receive messages. The server will stop any incoming data packets from being transmitted to your computer or device. The network also updates your availability to offline on the “buddy lists “of “buddies”. Incoming messages which were not received are stored as offline messages on most IM clients, and will be received when you sign back into the service.