America Online's Instant Messenger (AIM) is one of a host of chat applications that has become part of an Internet user's standard suite of tools in the last two years. For those of you not familiar with the program, it allows you to carry on real-time chat with one or more other people (termed "Buddies" by AOL) elsewhere on the Internet by typing at your keyboard. You can look up users by name or email address, then add them to a list of users called your "Buddy List." When a Buddy is online, the Buddy's name will appear in the category you assign the Buddy to. Buddies can also be "idle" (no activity at the computer for 10 minutes) or "away" (the Buddy puts up a message to this effect).
The current version of AIM is 4.2.1193, although for all practical purposes 4.2 is sufficient to describe the version number. It is a PowerPC-only application (68K support was dropped with version 4*) and requires about 6 MB of disk space and 6 MB of RAM. It's a free application and service. The service is supported by the small ads AOL displays at the top of your Buddy List window while you're on-line.
* The AIM 4.0.x application bundled with some distributions of Netscape is 68K-compatible.
AIM is an invaluable conferencing tool for doing business on the Internet or trying to keep in touch with someone far away. You can discuss business, shoot the breeze, or even exchange photographs over an Internet connection with anyone else who also has AIM. I use it to keep in touch with friends back home while I'm in Australia on study abroad, as well as discuss business matters with my two business partners back in the US.
AIM also has a voice chat feature; I've used it a fair bit, and I'm sad to say that its quality is severely lacking. While it's somewhat tolerable over T1 lines if both users are in the same general area, 56K modem users or users in different countries will likely find it useless for voice chat. The multi-user Chat feature of AIM is quite a different story, however; it allows several people to talk at once in a dynamically created "chat room" on AOL's servers. I've found this feature to be quite useful when discussing business matters, because the three of us can all discuss in real-time instead of waiting for one person to relay messages back and forth.
There are a few quirky problems with AIM. As I mentioned, the voice chat feature is nearly useless. Buddy Lists, which used to be limited to 100 Buddies (and would mysteriously truncate the list at 100 if you added more), are now capped at 160 Buddies. When you try to go beyond 160 Buddies, however, the application doesn't tell you why the "Add Buddy" button is suddenly grayed out. I consider this limitation both unnecessary and poorly implemented.
One major disadvantage to AIM over its biggest competitor, ICQ, is the lack of capability for sending messages to contacts who are not online at the time you send the message. This isn't so much a bug as a lack of a useful feature.
Last, but perhaps most annoying, is the strange "bold system font" bug caused by a certain set of circumstances existing while having an IM Image connection open. The fonts used in the menu bar and window title bars will suddenly go bold for seemingly no reason; restarting is the only cure. A friend and I have been working on isolating the cause of this bug, but despite a few hours of testing have found nothing conclusive.
That said, I prefer AIM to ICQ simply because I find it much easier to use. AIM's standard buddy chat interface is much more mature than ICQ's, file-swapping is easier, and conversations with buddies can be saved. AIM has also been far more stable over the past two years than Mirabilis versions of ICQ (Gerry's ICQ is significantly better).
copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson