Now, back in the old days, if you signed up for a particular instant-messaging service like AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) or Yahoo Messenger, you could only talk to people who were using that same service. AIM members could only yap with other AIM members, and so on.
This system led people to sign up for the service that most of their friends happened to use and that was that. If you wanted to talk to a friend using another IM service, you had to go sign up for another IM account with that service just to talk to that one friend. So most people just signed up for AIM (the largest of the bunch) and stayed there.
In recent years, a notion called interoperability has taken hold, meaning you can IM with people on different services. For example, AIM members can now let the messages fly with users of Apple's iChat IM program with .Mac and MobileMe accounts. And if the two services still don't interoperate with each other, you can get an IM software program like Trillian that connects the various IM services itself, letting AIM users talk to people on Yahoo Messenger.
The most common IM services include:
- AIM. Still an IM behemoth, AIM has millions of members and its own ad-laden IM software you can download from its website. The AIM software comes in versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux, but Ubuntu users should stick with Pidgin.
- Windows Live Messenger. Known in its earlier life as MSN Messenger, Microsoft's IM service lets its members talk to people using Yahoo Messenger. Windows Live Messenger 2009 lets you include AIM and Google Talk members into your contacts list as well. Needless to say, this software is for Windows. (messenger.live.com)
- Yahoo Messenger. Yahoo members don't need to download a separate program to chat with other Yahooligans and Windows Live people—you can IM directly within the web browser by typing web.im in the address bar. You need to be using Internet Explorer or Firefox with the Flash 9.0 plug-in installed. Windows people can also download a traditional IM software program for much faster performance. (messenger.yahoo.com)
- Google Talk. The search giant has its own IM service as well, with a Windows program to download. Gmail users can also do voice and video chat right inside their Gmail windows in the Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari web browsers. People with AIM accounts can also link them to their Gmail addresses for chatting within the mail window. (www.google.com/talk).
- Jabber. An open-source IM network, Jabber works with a number of software programs on all types of computer systems. Pidgin, described next, works with Jabber networks. (www.jabber.org)
Each IM service has its own software, but if you just want a program that talks to everyone on the various services, here are some options:
- Pidgin. Already installed for Ubuntu Linux users, the Pidgin IM software also comes in a Windows version and can link AIM, Yahoo, Windows Live, Google Talk, Jabber, and oodles of other IM services together. It's shown here and it's free. (www.pidgin.im)
- Trillian. Another all-purpose program that links AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo members together in one window. The basic version of Trillian is free. (www.ceruleanstudios.com)
The Buddy List/Contacts List
If you already use an IM service on another computer, your existing Buddy List pops up on the netbook as soon as you log into your account. If you've never used an instant message program before, you need to add some buddies. To do so, you need your friend's IM screen names. If you don't know their screen names, ask them.
Methods for adding buddies to your Buddy or Contacts List vary, but most programs have an "Add Buddy" or "Add Contact" icon on the IM window. When the box to add a new buddy pops up, type your pal's screen name and click Add.
Most IM programs also let you add a pal's mobile phone number to your buddy list; for U.S. and Canadian pals, just type +1 before the phone number's 10 digits. When you send a message to the number from your IM program, it shows up as a SMS text message on the cellphone. (For international numbers, you need to add the country code instead of +1; there's a list of codes at www.smsmac.com/coverage.)
To send a message to someone on your buddy list, double-click the person's screen name in the list. A box pops up that lets you type the initial message. Once the person accepts your invitation to gab, the conversation unfolds like movie-script dialogue in the IM window. When you're done, close the window, log out of the service, or quit the IM program.
You can also set your status line from a pop-up menu under your name in the Buddy List window. This little caption lets your online pals know when you're too busy to talk, away from the computer, and so on.
Many IM programs also let you link your status line to whatever song is playing on your computer from Windows Media Player, iTunes, or whatever music program you use. Just be prepared for some ribbing from the music critics on your contacts list if you spend the afternoon listening to Rod Stewart croaking out "It Had to Be You" or Ethel Merman's disco album (yes, she made one in 1979 and it's still for sale online today).
Note: Chat is similar to instant messaging, except you can carry on a conversation with more than just one person. To set up a chat in your IM program, just select some people from your Buddy List and choose the program's Chat command. In AIM, for example, choose Actions->Chat->Buddy Chat.
Learn more about this topic from Netbooks: The Missing Manual.
Netbooks are the hot new thing in PCs -- small, inexpensive laptops designed for web browsing, email, and working with web-based programs. With this Missing Manual, you'll learn not only which netbook is right for you, but also how to set it up and use it for everything from job-related tasks like working with spreadsheets to hobbies like gaming and photo sharing.