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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | COMPUTER BASICS

A Private Web Chat? Let's Talk

July 13, 1998|KIM KOMANDO

Looking for a way to communicate with friends and family in real time via your computer? For years, IRC (Internet relay chat) channels or online-service chat rooms were the way to make the magic happen, but chat has some major problems that make even the adventurous steer clear.

First, communication is not private; anyone in the same channel or chat room as you is privy to whatever you have to say. More important, many chat areas--even ones that seem to cover the most innocuous of topics--are often frequented by, shall we say, a less-than-savory element. At just about any time of day in a chat room or IRC channel, you're bound to run into rooms such as "x7x8x9"--indicating to pedophiles that it is about children ages 7, 8 and 9.

Just last week my 12-year-old visiting cousin went into an America Online public chat room to catch up with her friends back home on the East Coast. What's scary is what happened afterward. Her incoming mailbox was immediately flooded with offers from young to middle-aged men wanting to "get to know her." Then the spam started, with headings alone that could make anyone blush.

This isn't to say that every chat room is loaded with creeps--there are indeed some worthwhile ones out there--but this sort of thing happens often enough that it is an area of grave concern.

If you're looking for real-time online communications without the risk, an alternative is the slick new breed of programs known as instant pager/chat applications.

Here's the basic idea: You sign on to the Internet and launch your pager/chat program. A few moments later, you see a list of anyone else in your address book that is also logged on and running the software. When you have something to say to one of these people, you can "page" them and, assuming they're agreeable to the idea, engage in an entirely private chat session.

A chat session is simply a text-based conversation--you type something and the person at the other end reads it and responds. The running conversation takes up most of the program's window, and near the bottom you'll find an area in which to type replies. The speed of your typing, your Internet connection and host response times are the only things that limit the conversation from truly taking place in real time. Best of all, these programs are typically free to individual users, although some require corporate users to pay a fee.

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There are drawbacks, though. For starters, pager/chat programs have one basic shortcoming in common with Internet telephony. For you and your friend, family member or business associate to keep in touch, you all need to use the same software. The technology is so new that there is no industry standard that allows programs from different vendors to operate with one another.

That means that to make the most of this technology, you must choose between two unenviable options.

The first is to make sure that every person you'd want to chat with online uses the same software you do. If you're using this technology for internal communications at work, it should be easy to convince your information technology department to standardize on one application. On the other hand, it's all but impossible to exert that sort of influence on anyone outside your organization--including family members.

Your second option is to run multiple pager/chat applications. That way, you can ensure compatibility with the most people. In reality, though, this isn't very practical. Although many of these programs are free, each one takes up disk space and memory. Plus, since these programs operate on similar principles, you're likely to experience software conflicts. It would almost be like having a different phone line in your home for each group of friends or associates. Yikes!

While pager/chat programs are admittedly less than perfect, they're still much better than any real-time Internet communication tools that have come before them. Here's a look at some of the players in this expanding market.

ICQ (Get it? "I seek you") from Mirabilis (http://www.mirabilis.com) was one of the first pager/chat programs on the market and as such is the most robust. ICQ lets you transfer URLs and data files directly from one computer to another. It allows multi-user chats, the recording of conversations to a text file, and provides a variety of alert, accept, permission and privilege modes from which to select.

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ICQ also has some terrific e-mail features. You can compose messages offline and launch your e-mail client from within ICQ whenever necessary. This way, ICQ can check and automatically alert you, before you download, as to how many e-mail messages are waiting for you and from whom they were sent.

The biggest downside to ICQ is that the interface will remind you of older non-Windows-based programs. But in lieu of a pretty face, you get lots of intuitive features that are hard to beat.

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