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Network: Now chat is where it's at

Many people are eschewing e-mail for a quicker form of communication. By Matthew Burgess
E-mail has been hailed as a revolutionary, democratic medium which crosses cultural and ideological boundaries at the click of a button.

More importantly to millions of bored office workers, though, e-mail is ideal for covert socialising. Idle conversations, sarcastic asides and tantalising flirtations can all be indulged in, camouflaged by the rapid keystrokes that seem to indicate a diligent devotion to duty.

Recently, however, social e-mail use has started to tail off. Company bosses should not hold their breath for a sudden surge in productivity, though. The decline is not due to employee motivation but to chat software: programs dedicated to online interaction. Chat software sits unobtrusively on the taskbar and is a lot speedier than e-mail, as well as magnifying its time-wasting possibilities a hundredfold. More to the point, the chances of Big Brother-style eavesdropping by suspicious IT managers are lessened as, unlike corporate e-mail systems, chat services are not hosted by individual company servers.

E-mail, despite its huge popularity, has shortcomings as a vehicle for rapid interaction. It is primarily a one-way medium in much the same way as the old-fashioned letter. Although delivery may be quicker, a lot of the principles and protocols are similar, making it unsuitable for conversation.

Conversation demands rapid interaction, which is where chat software comes into its own. The ability to interact over a network of computers is nothing new - Internet chat rooms and internal company messaging services have been around for ages. But it has only been relatively recently that personal - and free - chat software has started to come into its own.

The first major alternative to e-mail was ICQ, from the Israeli company Mirabilis (www. icq.com). Launched in November 1996, ICQ (a phonetic abbreviation of I Seek You) discarded the "formalities" of e-mail for a simpler format more akin to an electronic Post-It note. Rather than requiring a name, address, message subject and message text, the ICQ menu allowed users simply to double-click on the ID of their correspondent, type a note into the ensuing message box and click "send". Furthermore, it displayed a real-time contact list that notified you whether the person you wanted to chat to was online, rather than the blind messaging of conventional e-mail.

The software was (and still is) free, and did not require much in the way of system resources or download time. Fuelled by Mirabilis's encouraging of ICQ "communities" and common-interest groups, it soon became one of the most popular downloads on the web, attracting the attention of AOL, which acquired Mirabilis last year for $287m.

Many ICQ users, who feared that their "independent" service would be remoulded in the homogenous image of its new parent, viewed the purchase with suspicion. However, not wanting to alienate the huge and potentially lucrative userbase (currently approaching 30 million worldwide) that they had just bought into, AOL wisely avoided any drastic repositioning of the ICQ brand, keeping it separate from its chat client, Instant Messenger.

Integrated into the latest version of Netscape Communicator, and customised by the AOL-owned CompuServe for inclusion in its forthcoming CompuServe 2000 software, Instant Messenger eschews the bells and whistles of ICQ for a more user-friendly approach. Upon selecting a contact, a dialogue box opens. When a message is sent, it appears in the sender's box as well as that of the recipient, so a visible transcript of the conversation builds up during the course of the "chat". It is still not exactly like a text-based telephone call, but it is faster and gives a more convincing conversational experience than ICQ.

Chat software, however, offers more than just a social application. The availability of instant responses and online conversations means that it can be a less costly alternative to telephone and video conferencing in the workplace. It has already made a significant difference for Robert Minto, a London-based film producer.

Currently in pre-production for his second feature, Minto's task demands regular communication with the scriptwriters and director, despite not working from a common office base. He was recommended CompuServe's revamped version of Instant Messenger as a possible solution:

"Before this, the scriptwriters would be working with each other on the treatment via e-mail, then sending it on to me, again via e-mail, which meant the process for changing a scene sequence could easily take a day or two."

Instant Messenger allowed them simply to arrange a time to be online and set up a group chat. Word-processor documents retain most of their formatting when pasted into Instant Messenger, letting the writers speedily exchange script fragments and giving Minto the ability to ensure that their ideas stay within a realistic framework.

"The scriptwriters are extremely imaginative, and if allowed to, they can write something into the script that simply isn't feasible," Minto says. "With this software our communication is vastly improved and I can keep a close eye on what is going on, so our limited time and budget is not wasted."

Although work environments such as Minto's prove its superiority where rapid interaction is required, chat software is likely to displace rather than destroy e-mail. A likely scenario is that e-mail will take care of formal messages much in the same way that letters do now, while chat software plays a similar role to the telephone, catering for more familiar and urgent communication.

With Microsoft seeming uncharacteristically reticent to enter the arena (though their NetMeeting software includes interactive text facilities, it is more a general conferencing tool for the business user), AOL is monopolising online conversation. However, the potential for chat software doesn't stop there. Upon the acquisition of ICQ, AOL's chairman, Steve Case, cited it as providing an "unparalleled launch pad for a broader web portal strategy". Translation: chat software can be the user's sole point of entry into the web. ICQ 99 beta version 2.13 already includes a powerful Inktomi search engine and the ability to create ICQ homepages.

With Instant Messenger names and ICQ numbers joining landline, mobile, fax, pager and e-mail, it looks like keeping in touch in the 21st century is going to require good memories and large business cards.