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    Communications 3 min read

    An instant message (IM) service is a type of communication platform that enables users to chat online in real time. It’s similar to a live phone conversation, but it uses text-based instead of voice-based communication.

    History of instant messaging

    The first widely used GUI-based instant messenger was ICQ, which was launched in 1996. IQC enabled users to communicate one-on-one or in chat rooms and share files with one another over the Internet. Before then, most instant messaging took place in the context of bulletin board systems (BBS) and modem-based text messages through services like MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), Quantum Link, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

    The next year, America Online (AOL) launched its instant messaging software, AIM. It added more user-centric features like the Buddy List, user profiles, and custom away messages. Several technology companies started launching competitive programs of their own and the instant messaging market was quickly saturated by vendors including Yahoo, MSN, and Pidgin.

    In the 2000s and 2010s, vendors including Apple, Google, Skype, MySpace, Meebo, Facebook, and Slack began offering instant messaging services that were also paired with video and voice features. This meant a user could call, video conference, and chat with other users from the same platform. Instant messaging has also become an integral part of social media use. In fact, nearly all of the major social media platforms have some sort of private messaging function that allows users to communicate without publishing content publicly. This has led to most modern instant messaging functions to be used interchangeably with direct messaging (DM) and private messaging (PM).

    Instant messaging vs. other types of messaging

    Although instant messaging is very similar to other types of text-based communication (email and SMS), there are a few distinctions that are worth noting:

    Instant messaging

    Email

    SMS

    Formal/informal language?

    Informal

    Formal

    Informal

    Intended audience?

    Friends/family

    Business contacts

    Friends/family

    Accessible via the Internet?

    Yes

    Yes

    No

    Cellular network connection required?

    No

    No

    Yes

    Recipient identification method?

    Username

    Email address

    Mobile phone number

    Device restricted?

    No*

    No

    Yes (mobile phones)

    Platform-neutral?

    No

    Yes

    Yes

    Cost per message?

    No

    No

    Yes

    Ideal message length?

    Short

    Long

    Short

    Speed?

    Fastest

    Slowest

    Moderate

     

    *excludes Apple iMessage

    Examples of instant messaging services

    As mentioned above, there are many instant messaging services available for free and as a licensed product for professional users. Some of these include: