Rhodri Marsden: Cyberman

There are new ways to make us pay. Gt th msg?

Hi, how r u? Welcome to the world of instant messaging, or IM, where the awesome power of the internet is harnessed to let us exchange mundane notes in real time, for free.

Some IM programs have become more sophisticated, adding bells and whistles such as voice communication, but the original use is still the most popular: chatting to people - often complete strangers - just because you can. "Look!" I remember shouting to my uninterested girlfriend back in 1996: "I'm talking to a complete idiot, but - he's in Australia! Amazing."

Always-on internet connections have boosted the popularity of IM. Only this week, MySpace announced a new service to sit alongside Google's GTalk, Microsoft's Messenger, AOL's AIM and the others that carry our notelets to and fro.

The one essential requirement for any IM network, however, seems to be a pathetic incompatibility with the others, so you can only communicate with people using the same one. If mobiles worked the same way, we'd be carrying four different handsets and constantly losing track of who we could call on which phone.

But the IM companies are realising the absurdity of this situation: partnerships have been announced between Microsoft and Yahoo!, and AOL and Google, which will, by later this year, give each pair a roughly equal market share of about 50 million users each. While they continue to fight for pole position in the race to become the predominant IM provider, many people are simply turning to programs such as Trillian, which cleverly allow access to all the major networks from within a single application.

IM's future supposedly lies on mobile phones. Many handsets can now connect to a worldwide service called Yamigo, through which you can access the major IM networks - but I failed utterly to make it work, and I'm not alone. Yamigo's website says that more than 61,000 people have signed up, but only 43 appeared to be using the service on Monday evening.

This suits the mobile-phone companies, who make huge sums from the sending of SMS messages. With 3.1 billion texts sent by UK residents in December - many of them merely saying "Merry Christmas" - the last thing these companies want is for MSN or AOL to carry our seasonal wishes, and to lose out on the ludicrous 10p they currently charge us to send each one.

In a move that seems altruistic but is more about maintaining profits, an IM standard was recently announced that will work across all mobile networks, keeping us in permanent contact with each other - no doubt at a carefully controlled price level.

The phrase "Instant Message" was coined by the sci-fi writer Paul Linebarger in the 1960s. He imagined they would travel faster than the speed of light and be incredibly expensive. He would have been delighted to know that at least one of his predictions was set to come true.

cyber@timewasting.net

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