When the internet reached my life about 10 years ago, one of the major changes to the way I could communicate with friends was instant messaging. Using a service like ICQ made zero-cost text-based communication and file transfers possible from a little buddy list on your screen. The beauty of it was its simplicity, and the space-time-disintermediated way of using it that I started to enjoy. A decade later, I still use the same ICQ number, but my buddy list has grown to include contacts from the other networks (YIM, AIM, MSN). I have stopped using proprietary, sincle-protocol clients, a long time ago (I currently use Pidgin), and I am more and more thinking of switching to an open protocol (XMMP aka Jabber, also used by Google Talk) entirely. The ability to quickly shoot a message to someone else who is currently on-line, or write one and get a reply when they do log back on, is something I value dearly and a form of internet communication that I do not want to miss. It is more convenient and intuitive than Email and does not get in my way as a phone call would (I need to pick up the phone, dial, use at least one hand and one ear, etc).
But that is not really what I want to write about. I think instant messaging has gone undercover and does not get the appreciation it deserves. I think two developments are responsible for this. One is the lack of interoperability between the protocols, which have forced less tech-savvy users to install several clients and in the end give up on instant messaging or lose interest in it. The other is social networking, whose platforms are more and more incorporating instant messaging capability, such as Facebook Chat (even though it is possible to use Facebook chat from a client such as Pidgin). This development is disappointing, as I believe the technology despite its age has not lost its clear benefits and offers many advantages in all sectors.
Imagine a bureaucracy, where employees constantly send letters via in-house snail mail or faxes, run down hallways to ask for things, or pick up the phone just to find the other end busy. Instant messaging can reduce these communication costs dramatically and free up resources. Want to know whether Report X has reached Department X? Double click on the Dept. X Contact in your buddy list, write „has R.X arrived yet? Let me know when.“ and minimize the window. Dept. X will reply when they can and you have the reply blinking as a message on your computer, which is not an envelope you have to open, or a ringing phone to answer, or someone knocking at your door.