If you spend a lot of time working at your computer, you may find that messaging is a powerful and effective tool for communicating with colleagues, clients, family, and friends. Messaging is much more immediate than email, yet much less intrusive and demanding than the telephone. I use messaging on a daily basis to keep in touch with friends and colleagues all over the country.
Although messaging is free, it costs the providers big money to develop and run. Why do they pay to make this a free service? Well, if you haven't noticed yet, these services are tied into their manufacturers' other ventures. For example, AOL Instant Messenger (IM) displays an unobtrusive but constant parade of advertisements for AOL and other products, and occasionally a video ad with loud audio accompaniment. (I immediately shut it down when it pulls this on methis is totally inappropriate behavior for a program used in the workplace.) Microsoft's Messenger forces you to sign up for Passport and not so subtly steers you toward using Hotmail, MSN, and other Microsoft services, where you'll again be barraged with advertising that Microsoft collects on.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, in itself. The problem is that the messaging companies want you all to themselves, and have steadfastly refused to let their systems interoperate. Microsoft did make headlines by trying to make Messenger work with AOL's IM for a while (perhaps to lure away its users?). AOL modified their software to block Messenger users, and Microsoft fixed that until AOL changed their software yet again; lawsuits followed and it all got very ugly. The bottom line is that AOL Instant Messenger, Windows Messenger, and ICQ don't work together, so their users are in separate, non-communicating camps.
If you find that you have friends and coworkers scattered across all of the major systems, you can either get a third-party program that can connect to all of the systems at once, or load all of the separate programs at the same time.
Multiple-system programs make life simpler, since they merge all of your contacts into one list, and let you use a single user interface for all chatting and file transfers. You also save time when you log on, as you don't have to wait for several programs to start up (AOL Instant Messenger, in particular, has a really ugly startup time; it freezes my desktop for about 15 seconds every time I log on.) The downside is that the message service providers may eventually decide that these third-party programs are cutting into their cross-selling profits, and may take steps to prevent them from connecting.
Some multiple-service programs that you might want to check out are listed here:
Always be suspicious of free software; it might come with unsavory "adware" that pops ads up onto your screen, or worse, "spyware" that monitors your online activity and sends the information to marketing companies.
Personally, as most of the people I contact are on one IM system, and I only occasionally need to use the others, I've found it best to use the various providers' own chat programs. If you want to use separate chat clients, here are some tips to help you get set up:
Regardless of which IM client(s) you use, remember to take steps to protect your privacy. Think twice about listing your email address, telephone number, or full name in any of these service's directories. I prefer to contact others directly and give them my chat identification info, rather than making it public.
You can also configure these programs to prevent unknown people from contacting you without your permission. It's your computer, your time, and your connection, so you should be in control of who uses it.
Finally, when you register for one of these services, be sure to opt-out of any marketing email lists that the provider wants to sign you up for.