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Kill Many IM Birds with One Software Stone

Keeping in touch with people on different IM services doesn't necessarily require you to use a separate IM client for each. You can simplify things by using a third-party IM client that supports multiple services.

by Joseph Moran

Instant messaging has become such a ubiquitous means of communication that many of us now use it as much as if not more than e-mail (and some rely on it even more than oxygen, food or sleep).

But unlike e-mail, instant messaging services don't use common technologies that allow for interoperability among systems. Imagine that you had a Verizon e-mail account, for example, and couldn't send a message to a Comcast subscriber because the two providers' systems couldn't talk to each other. Technically speaking, that's pretty much the way IM works these days.

There are four major IM systems — AOL Instant Messenger, GoogleTalk, Microsoft MSN/Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger — plus numerous other less well-known services, most of which use their own protocols and software that are incompatible with all the others. In an ideal world, you'd use a single IM service that all your friends, family members, and colleagues subscribed to. But this is real life, so it's more likely that those folks are scattered across several services.

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Luckily, keeping in touch with people on different IM services doesn't necessarily require you to use a separate IM client for each. You can simplify things by using a third-party IM client that supports multiple services. While these third-party clients don't technically solve the interoperability problem between IM systems — you still have to subscribe to each IM service you want to use — they do get around it by providing a common platform you can use to communicate with people irrespective of what IM system they're on.

Aside from support for multiple services, there can be other benefits to using a third-party IM client in lieu of a service's native software. For starters, you might get some features — especially in the area of interface customization — that aren't available in the "official" software. On the flip side, a third-party client may not support all of a service's advanced features — like file transfers, audio, or videoconferencing — so it's a good idea to keep the native IM software installed just in case you need it. (You may actually come to appreciate a third-party IM client for what it doesn't include; like the advertising you get with AOL Instant Messenger, for example.)

Here are three third-party IM clients that are worth a look. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but a key characteristic of all of them is that they're free to use and free from ads.

IM ClientServices Supported
PidginAIM, Yahoo!, MSN/Live, ICQ, IRC, GoogleTalk/Jabber, GroupWise
TrillianIM, Yahoo!, MSN/Live, ICQ, IRC, (plus GoogleTalk/Jabber and GroupWise in paid version)
MeeboAIM, Yahoo!, GoogleTalk/Jabber, MSN/Live ICQ

Pidgin —formerly called GAIM (prior to a naming dispute with AOL) — is a free open-source IM utility ( that supports well over a dozen different services (see chart) and is available for Windows and Linux/Unix.

Pidgin provides a pretty basic interface (you might even call it spartan), but it's easy to use and does allow for a fair amount of customization. Via a separate plug-in module, Pidgin can provide spell checking in almost two dozen languages, though given the way most people use IM, it's probably not on your list of must-have features. In addition to basic text chatting Pidgin also supports file transfers, but not audio or video conferencing.

Cerulean Studios' Trillian is a Windows-only IM client that doesn't work with nearly as many services as Pidgin but it does support most of the major ones.

Trillian is available in free and paid versions; usually that means the former is mere shell of the latter, but that's not the case here. Even Trillian's free version provides a boatload of features, through stepping up to the $25 paid version adds support for a few more IM services and videoconferencing capability. (Here's a chart outlining the differences between the two versions.)

If you want a way to access IM without having to install any software, you can check out Meebo . Meebo is a Web-based utility that supports basic text chatting and file transfer (but not audio and video) for a half-dozen different IM services.

Although it exists entirely within a browser, (so you can use it from anywhere) Meebo mimics the look-and-feel of conventional IM software with a skinnable interface and floating dialog boxes that can be moved within the browser (or converted into independent floating browser windows).

Meebo's free to use and doesn't require registration, though you do need to create a Meebo account to save your interface preferences. (Registering with the service also lets you use your Meebo account info as a single sign-on for all of your IM accounts.)

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.

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