It’s all about communication, it’s all about reaching out and touching someone or a lot of someones. Face-to-face, letter, telegraph, telephone, email, text messaging and the now ubiquitous Instant Messaging (IM). If you’re a family person with teens or pre-teens, you may find them spending more time on iChat than on the phone. Or doing chores. Or doing homework. Ah, but that’s another story.

When online services were also content providers like AOL, GEnie, CompuServe and the like, it was hard to get people connected online. Sure there was email, but it wasn’t very immediate. Ok for business, not so ok for personal communication. Then AOL developed AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) as an subscriber bonus. Everyone who was a member could now talk instantly to other members online. Good subscriber tool, get everyone on AOL and then you could type to them as much as you want, even be notified when they come online. Cool.

But then the Internet boom. Everyone could now get online without a content provider. They had direct access to the internet. Web, FTP, Gopher, all the services direct without a middleman like AOL. So AOL released AIM to the public, no subscription required. By then other companies were also taking a look at the IM phenomenon. Namely Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft came out with MSN Messenger and Apple with iChat. Then ICQ, Yahoo, and Jabber and many others. Now there are custom services like Xfire, which is for gamers and a whole new generation of chat tools that allow text, audio and video. On the Mac, you can access Xfire though the Xblaze plugin for AdiumX.

So what good is it? Plenty! I use it primarily to check to see who is around. Plug all my clients and buddies screen names in and when they are online or just on their computer, I know it. Then if I want to send them a quick message, I know they’ll get it quickly. What, as in my case, if they are all on different services? Easy. I use a multi-protocol IM client that can speak the various languages of the different IM services.

Let’s see… AIM bought ICQ. Apple’s iChat is an AIM client. That means that iChat users have access to everyone who has an AIM, ICQ or .Mac account. It’s already multi-protocol. Nice! What about MSN, Yahoo, Jabber and the rest? Well, three Mac contenders that address most of the popular ones are AdiumX, Fire and Proteus. They all support AIM, iChat, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo. Adium has a plugin architecture for future services (like Xfire and GoogleTalk). They have features like themes for visual and audio cues, icons, text and the like.

The downside? They may not completely support all the features of a particular service, like audio and video or file transfers. Another downside is that they require that you have a separate account with each of the services. That isn’t too painful though. You just need to signup, pick a screen name and password and then plug those into the software. The rest is transparent. Another annoying thing is that if the service doesn’t maintain your Buddy List, you may have to rebuild it for each. Luckily, AIM and MSN maintain that info on the servers.

What can they do? Instant messaging, chat rooms (conferencing), audio and sometimes video for both single and group chat, file transfers, sending links. Pretty good stuff. Some have encrypted chat for the privacy-minded. Chat histories provide a reference in case you forgot something. You can list current iTunes song, web page, active application. Yeah, stuff that might not be critical, but interesting and fun. That’s ok, too.

And be aware of the audio- and video-based apps for both home and business. iSpyQ and iVisit for audio/video use. The in-game voice chat software of choice is TeamSpeak and TeamSpeex for Mac, as well as Ventrilo. The heavily subscribed Skype and new comer SightSpeed for voice and video telephone-like service. Most of these are either free or have free-with-limitation accounts.

So sign up for one or maybe a bunch. The toughest part will be coming up with a screen name that hasn’t been taken by someone else. And you’ll be a believer, too.

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