There is no doubt that the Internet has changed the way we communicate. For many of us, e-mail has virtually replaced traditional letters and even telephone calls as the choice for correspondence. Every day, billions of e-mail messages are sent out. E-mail has been the most rapidly adopted form of communication ever known. In less than two decades, it has gone from obscurity to mainstream dominance.


America Online's Instant Messenger (AIM) program is one of the most popular instant messaging utilities available.

In our fast-paced world, sometimes even the rapid response of e-mail is not fast enough. You have no way of knowing if the person you are sending e-mail to is online at that particular moment or not. Also, if you are sending multiple e-mails back and forth with the same person, you normally have to click through a few steps to read, reply and send the e-mail. This is why instant messaging (IM) has gained popularity.

Instant messaging allows you to maintain a list of people that you wish to interact with. You can send messages to any of the people in your list, often called a buddy list or contact list, as long as that person is online. Sending a message opens up a small window where you and your friend can type in messages that both of you can see.

Most of the popular instant-messaging programs provide a variety of features:

  • Instant messages - Send notes back and forth with a friend who is online
  • Chat - Create your own custom chat room with friends or co-workers
  • Web links - Share links to your favorite Web sites
  • Images - Look at an image stored on your friend's computer
  • Sounds - Play sounds for your friends
  • Files - Share files by sending them directly to your friends
  • Talk - Use the Internet instead of a phone to actually talk with friends
  • Streaming content - Real-time or near-real-time stock quotes and news

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, you will learn about the history of instant messaging and how it works. You will also learn what the major IM programs are, what makes them different from each other and what the future holds for IM.