This chapter looks at the increasingly popular communications method known as instant messaging (IM). IM allows for real-time communication with other people. Email is a great solution when you have the time to wait for a response and it is a great leap over postal mail. Telephone conversations offer immediate responses. If you combine email with the immediacy of telephony you end up with instant messaging. IM is interactive, letting you communicate with one or more persons and exchange a good deal more information than can be done with email or the telephone over the same period. IM is not as demanding of your time and attention as a phone conversation; you can continue to work on other things and can even choose not to respond to a conversation that is ongoing for as long as you like. IM is more private; it gives you the ability to control whether anyone can see that you are available to receive instant messages, and you can decide who can and cannot send messages to you. You can send text with IM applications, and you can even use your audio and video hardware to communicate via voice and/or virtual face-to-face communications. These are among the reasons why IM has gained an incredible amount of popularity recently.
In this chapter you'll use Windows Messenger. This application is installed by default with all Windows XP installations, so it makes a natural choice as the IM platform in your home network. You can use Windows Messenger to communicate with one or many users on the Internet or on your local home network. If your computer is equipped with a sound card, a microphone, and speakers or a pair of headphones, you can use Windows Messenger to "talk" to another person on the network. Add a webcam, and you have full-fledged audio and video communications capabilities, which would allow someone working from a home office, for example, to attend audioconference and videoconference calls from the comfort of his or her own home.
To use the Windows Messenger application, you need a network connection and a .NET Passport account. The .NET Passport account is required whether you are communicating with people over the Internet or over your own local network because the list of contacts you see in Messenger is stored on a central server on the Internet. The advantage this offers is that your contacts are available to you regardless of where you are physically. So, for example, you could be away on a business trip with your laptop and still sign in to your Windows Messenger .NET Passport account and be able to communicate with people just as if you were on your home network. If you don't already have a .NET Passport account, don't worry; in this chapter you'll walk through the process of setting one up.