Which Instant Messenger is Right for You?

AOL announced in early May that they are prepared to offer the 41 million users of its instant messaging system a phone number that allows anyone to call them from a regular phone. The number is free, and the user can pick up the call from their computer. This move to capitalize on the popularity of their messaging software isn’t the only one AOL is making – they are also introducing AIM Pages in an effort to compete with MySpace.com, a rapidly growing social networking community.

With all the options on the table, it is no longer a matter of choosing which messenger you use based on what your friends are using. At one time, it was easy – and feasible – to grab the AOL instant messenger and install it right alongside Yahoo! messenger and MSN messenger. That way, you could always talk to the person you needed to talk to because chances were you had them on at least one of your buddy lists.

There’s much more to consider now, and this dilemma will only grow more heated in the next several months as popular services unleash their new additions – MySpace, for example, is releasing its own instant messaging system. So before you go banging your head against the keyboard in sheer frustration, here’s a rundown of three of the most full-featured services and what they offer (or soon will).

AOL Instant Messenger

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is a free download that continues to lead the instant messaging arena with 38% of the market, followed by Yahoo! and Microsoft, according to the research service comScore Networks. The new introductions AIM plans on unveiling is an offensive measure to protect their messaging business – the market is getting more and more competitive, with even Google entering the ring with Google Talk.

In addition to the standard AIM software, which lets a user chat to another user that is online, AOL is beefing up the benefits with a twist on services that allow calls between regular phones and PC’s. This idea was first introduced by Skype, a program owned by eBay, but has been copied by several other programs including the Yahoo! instant messenger. The AOL Phoneline Service allows users to call each other, PC to PC, if both are online. Additional services including receiving incoming calls and placing calls from a computer to an ordinary phone line typically average $30-40 a year; AOL is making all incoming calls free, a plan that they hope will make the service take off in ways that Skype has failed to do in the United States. Outgoing calls via AIM will sell as part of a flat-rate package costing $14.90 a month for unlimited calling.

Beyond the Internet Calling Features new to AIM, AOL will be introducing AIM Pages. In what AOL hopes will be a move to beat MySpace, they have given users even borader flexibility in designing their pages through the use of modules that users can place just by dragging-and-dropping. These modules include photo albums, buddy lists, music videos, CNN headlines, Flickr photo-sharing, and video-sharing from YouTube. Marketers will be able to create their own sites on the service to offer modules to users for including on their pages.

As with MySpace, just a little bit of web design knowledge allows users to change elements of their AIM pages and pull in content like images, videos, and music from other websites. Other AIM users will be able to tell by the icon on their messenger that a person on their buddy list has updated their AIM page.

The AIM Pros:

  • Unlimited free incoming calls right to your computer that you can answer using your headset and microphone.
  • Unlimited free PC to PC calls as long as both users are online.
  • Free AIM Page to post your hobbies, interests, photos, etc. with easy-to-use modules.

The AIM Cons:

  • It’s a new service, brand-new, so there will be glitches and bugs. AOL is as notorious as Microsoft for the number of updates required of their products.
  • You must pay to use outgoing call features, which must be made from your computer microphone rather than a telephone as you can with VoIP services like Vonage.
  • Phone numbers will be available in 50 metropolitan areas, so if you don’t live in a city, don’t hold your breath.
  • Even if you pay for the service, AIM plans on making their money by displaying advertisements and charging for additional services like ring tones and call forwarding.
  • AIM Pages are going to appeal to the same audience as MySpace – 70 million teenagers.

Yahoo! Instant Messenger

When Yahoo! updates their services, they don’t seem to go all-out with the press the way that AOL or Google does. Perhaps it’s because they have an outstandingly popular service as it is, and don’t feel the need to shout from the rooftops. Perhaps it’s because some of their recent updates are features that have been available on MSN messenger for some time now, including PC to PC calls, or that their latest call update is an all-out copy of Skype’s services.

Trailing hot on the heels of AIM in popularity, Yahoo! messenger offers a fully-featured software interface that lets the user hit a button to see news, display and play music, read horoscopes, and more. It’s arguably one of the cleanest-looking messengers available, and lets users do some customization to the look of their messenger and create personalized avatars for display to the people they chat with.

If there’s one way in which Yahoo! exceeds all the other messaging services, it’s the fact that their PC to PC calls can house an infinite number of chatters. Voice meetings are becoming ever more popular as telecommuting becomes more accepted, and using Yahoo! means that all the participants are able to take part in the meetings with ease. Even better is that their PC to PC calls are honestly amazing in quality – sometimes surpassing Skype’s own quality.

Yahoo’s Phone Out service has rates that will even attract US customers, who haven’t been gung-ho over Skype because telephone rates are lower here than in other countries. Their rates start at 1 cent per minute within the US and 2 cents per minute to 30 other countries. AIM plans on beating Yahoo! in the Phone In category by making their incoming calls free, but Yahoo’s Phone In service is only $2.49 per month so it’s not that big of a stretch.

The Yahoo! Pros:

  • Serious good-quality voice abilities and a clean, easy-to-use text messenger.
  • Support for drag-and-drop photo sharing and file transfers up to 100 MB.
  • Stealth settings that allow you to appear as online to specific people only.
  • Games that play between you and the person you’re chatting to.
  • Webcam and Conference to multiple people all in one instant messenger.

The Yahoo! Cons:

  • No free homepage – this won’t matter to a large number of people, though.
  • Emergency 911 services not available on Yahoo! messenger – this is standard for most VoIP services.
  • Calls to mobile phones and wireless devices are charged at a higher rate than calls to a “regular” phone.

Skype Services

This is the eBay-owned bad boy that started it all. Extremely popular outside of the US (Skype shows all their service fees in euros, rather than dollars), this is another free messenger that works for a multitude of purposes. The basic free download of Skype will give you PC to PC calls and webcam services at no cost. In addition, Skype also features an instant messenger that supports an unlimited number of participants, very fast file and photo sharing, and the ability to connect to people you’ve never met before by using the Skype Me feature.

Where Skype has most of the other messengers still beat is that they offer local rates for long-distance PC to phone calls. Just as an example, when you use SkypeOut to call France, Germany and United Kingdom, you can save up to 56% per minute compared with AT&T CallVantageSM (compared with AT&T CallVantageSM on November 12 2004).

Because they began as a traditional-telephone rival, and not a messenger service, Skype is a bit slower in playing catch-up to the other services that companies like AOL are offering. They have SkypeOut (PC to phone), SkypeIn (phone to PC), PC to PC calling and video conferencing, and voicemail all working beautifully. In beta stages, Skype has an SMS service and Skype Zones, a way of making calls from more than 18,000 Skype-friendly internet hot-spots around the world.

Skype Pros:

  • Totally free PC to PC calls that are generally the highest quality available.
  • Standard text messaging services, file and photo sharing at really quick speeds.
  • Dedicated to voice services, meaning they’re not going to bombard you with a lot of stuff you don’t need.
  • Really inexpensive long-distance calls for PC to phone.
  • Saved chats so you can go right back to a text conversation for more information.

Skype Cons:

  • The voice conferencing feature limits participants to 5 people, which can be a hassle.
  • Because it’s dedicated to voice services, your friends and family aren’t going to think of it first as an instant messenger so you’ll have a much smaller contact list and probably need another instant messenger anyways.
  • Service credits are posted in euros, which can make it very unfriendly to the curious US customer.

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