MSN Messenger The strong, silent IM

MSN Messenger The strong, silent IM
Version 4.6.0077

Computer/Processor : 486DX/66 or higher
Operating System : Win 95/98/Me/2000 or Windows NT 4.0 or later. There are also other versions for Win XP, Macintosh, MS TV Messenger for the MS TV, and the MSN Companion.
Disk Space: 10 MB available for installation
Memory: 8 MB RAM
Available languages: 26
Browser: Microsoft Internet Explorer version 4.01 or later must be installed on your computer, though it does not need to be your default browser.
For voice capability, you need at least: A full-duplex sound card or a USB port, A speaker and microphone that plug into either the sound card or the USB port or a headset that plugs into either the sound card or the USB port. A modem with a speed of 33.6 Kbps or faster and a working connection speed of 33.6 Kbps or faster.

This latest version (4.6.0077) of MSN is as new as they come. The software itself informed me that the latest update was available this April and seamlessly installed it when I agreed to allowing it to proceed.

MSN Messenger is also tightly integrated with Microsoft’s MSN.com. So tightly that it is difficult or impossible to differentiate the application from the content provider. In this 4th of a series of IM reviews, we’ll see how well one of the most anticipated and popular Instant Messengers integrates the two. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

What is MSN Messenger?

MSN Mesenger (MSN for our purposes) is the Microsoft Empire’s main weapon in the Instant Messenger game, and an important element in Microsoft’s .Net strategy.

MSN contains the standard features of most Instant Messengers, such as chatrooms, sending and sharing files as well as, of course, sending instant messages to friends. MSN has the added features of the higher-end IMs, such as Webcam support (via working with MS Netmeeting, another popular MS application) and support for voice conversations (requiring an attached mike and earphone).

Finally, MSN Messenger sets itself apart by not only connecting to MS’s Hotmail, providing extra value to the Hotmail user by virtually integrating his PC with his email, but also brings tons of content from MSN.com, Microsoft’s portal and the major component of it’s .Net strategy. MSN.com effectively makes MSN Messenger a desktop window to the quality, focused content it has the capability to provide, but would otherwise get lost in the maze of hundreds of other websites that internet users can source their information from.

The combination of excellent IM technology plus content from MSN.com puts MSN among the top three IMs out there along with Yahoo IM and AOL’s AIM.

But again, why IMs?

Instant Messengers bring instantaneous, quality rich communication to the internet user, and so naturally require an internet connection. The more constant the internet connection, the better. A user hooked up via DSL, cable or similar technology will appreciate IMs more than the occasional dial-up user.

The fact that IMs prefer a constant internet connection to be of better use to a user sets it apart from other internet apps as far as selling things is concerned. Many people refrain from browsing sites that they’re not used to, and check out other sites only occasionally. Also there’s only so much you can do to convince someone to go to a site. As for email, a number of people just use the internet only for email and nothing else. Using spam to deliver information however is generally frowned upon and the results are questionable.

But IMs are different. IMs, to drive home an already obvious fact, are INSTANT, and as such are more valuable to marketers as conveyors of information than other alternatives. They are applications people willingly install on their PCs, mainly because they want to communicate with friends, co-workers and family. And as far as marketers are concerned, there’s no harm in displaying a few advertisements and try to sell some items along the way. Finally, IMs are everywhere, and have become mainstream internet applications. IMs over the years have become just as good an argument for connecting to the internet as much as browsing and email.

This is mainly the reason why IMs are so hotly contested by the big guns in the IT and entertainment biz. People take special note of their IMs, use them daily, make sure they have the latest updates, personalize them, update personal profiles, buy webcams, earphones and microphones to get the most out of them, and finally the best part – ask their friends to join up. It is therefore THE place to push information, as with it stands the most chances one has of being seen.

The Strong, Silent IM

At it’s most basic, all IMs are just applications sharing the same resources with all the other programs on your PC. As such, it shares physical resources like RAM and HD space just like all other programs.

But similarities end there. IMs are free, and the competition is tough. Unlike say, office applications like Word or Excel it’s a safe bet that there would probably be more than one IM residing in most home PCs today. The IM user market is spread broadly across Yahoo, AOL and ICQ etc. Therefore it’s makers need to design it to do more than just sit there quietly until called upon. An IM needs to attract your attention, making it get heard above the rest and saying to others “Pay attention to me, not AOL, Yahoo or ICQ. ME!”.

Having said that, you’d think a big flashing sign would be appropriate. However, you also don’t want to make it too loud. ICQ may have this cute big blinking flower icon, but it gets tiring to see it everytime you boot it up. Yahoo and AOL, though quite subtle when already running, have large unconfigurable splash screens that announce their arrival – pushing content you may not necessarily be interested in on your hapless self. I’ve actually gotten quite used to this already, and test my mouse clicking skills by clicking the ‘x’ on the splash screens to disable them before they can load their content.

So where’s the Silent part?

This is the reason why I call MSN the silent IM. Once detecting an internet connection, it instantaneously yet quietly checks your Hotmail account and a tiny blue window on the lower right hand corner of your desktop comes up to tell you how many emails you have in your Inbox. After a second or two, it will then quiet itself down. No button to push, no message box to press “Ok”. You will only hear from it again if someone is sending a message to you, another email comes in or a friend of yours logs in.

If you disconnect, it will not send you a message that you’re disconnected amd the small icon will just have a small red X mark to it. Other IMs (except ICQ and Yahoo) have an annoying pop-up sign telling you you’re not online – something you usually already know. I find messages that tell you you’re offline quite irritating and useless, effectively saying something like, “You’re offline. Do you know that? Yes/No” They should add “Duhh..” to that.

The Strong part

Thankfully there is no splash screen when the program loads. Instead MSN relies on some very well placed and configurable “tabs”. Default tabs include MS .Net Alerts, CNBC on MSN Money, Expedia, FYE, McAffee.com and MSN Carpoint.

Microsoft’s .Net alerts include further configurable information from Ebay, uBid Online Auctions, Expedia, MSN Calendar and MSN Music, as well as allow you to receive specific alerts from the other tabs: FYE, McAffee, MSN Money and Carpoint. This is MSN’s strongest argument to be your choice IM – .Net, while still early, is a promising technology thay may soon attract other websites to use it’s powerful one sign-up, one profile policy that can be spread across other partner websites.

The ability to receive alerts from EBay, Ubid and travel site Expedia make MSN a good choice for people who use those sites frequently. The rest, however, are either available via other IMs as well or are not applicable to someone who lives outside the US.

Of these, I configured to receive FYE and McAffee.com.

FYE (www.fye.com) is a popular site offering a wide variety of entertainment information which it then also allows you to buy online. It’s a straightforward unabashed attempt to sell you something, but I don’t really mind. FYE is such a large virtual superstore with tons of CDs, VCDs, DVDs, Box Sets, Games, Books and so much media it’s akin to walking around in a grocery store browsing. Like the other sites, it uses Microsoft’s Passport allowing a single login for all related sites and services.

The McAffee.com content tab sends you data about any wild virus out there that’s currently wreaking havoc. It also has a top virii list, featuring info about every particular virus as well as rating them per risk level. Of course there’s the requisite information on how to protect yourself from virii, and finally an attempt to sell you a solution.

I’ve tried McAffee.com’s paid online anti-virus and firewall solutions and they’re quite handy for the DSL or cable user. MSN’s tie-up with McAffee provides users with not only a way to get valuable content but receive virus protection as well. Worldwide virii development is so widespread I can’t see how things will improve in the short-term, so I highly recommend this service if you can afford it.

The good stuff

The standard IM features are greatly enhanced by MSN’s clean and easy to use interface, especially the “I want to..” button at the bottom featuring all the possible things you want to do including chat, send an email, add a friend, send a file and so on. This is a departure from say, ICQ’s maze of buttons which seem to offer up to three ways to do the same thing and can get confusing at worst, especially when you wish to do repetitive tasks like adding people to your friend list.

Re adding people, it’s the easiest thing to do. All you need to know is their MSN or Hotmail user account, enter it in a simple box and, unless they set it so they will be warned first, they’re automatically part of your list.

A neat trick is the ability to place a friend in two separate lists at the same time, so that you won’t have to send the same message to a person who happens to be in your office and basketball group.

You can also check which people have you on their friend list, and also chat with up to 4 friends simultaneously. Microsoft says Version 4.6 has an improved ability for voice messages, but I tried this only once and never noticed any difference. I suspect that there were other improvements as well in other areas of the program, such as security, but Microsoft didn’t need to expound.

MSN also allows you to log-in in internet cafes and other places away from your usual machine as it stores your user preferences and buddies on their servers. This has become a standard feature on most IMs though, and isn’t really new as AOL, Yahoo IM and only recently, ICQ has started to do this as well. I wouldn’t recommend using an IM that doesn’t allow this, as migrating settings and friend details locally on your PC is a headache when it comes time to upgrading or reformatting your machine.

Of course, MSN has to be previously installed on the PC you will be using so that you can use it. If you don’t have it, then no go. ICQ has a web-based feature that allows people to “see” you and make you appear online even if the PC you’re using doesn’t have ICQ (of course, you should at least be able to surf).

You can also send messages to people who aren’t online at the moment, as their servers will resend the message once they log-in.

Typical Microsoft

MSN Messenger is the only IM I’ve seen which allows developers to tweak it’s innards and make a version for themselves. MSN also provides a version for use with it’s Microsoft Exchange Server – for use within corporate intranets and internal systems.

To what end? No doubt this is one of Microsoft’s way of gathering market share, similar to Internet Explorer’s Administration Kit (IEAK), which allows you to set up your own version of what is basically the same thing, and spread it amongst other users who will then become familiar with it and, hopefully, choose to use it for good even when presented with other alternatives.

But more importantly, it allows developers to create their own unique versions of it or create add-on programs to it, effectively removing the need to improve on even the most minute details which Microsoft may not decide to improve on its own. The main goal of this is Personalization.

Personalization

MSN can be personalized by changing it to match your Windows Color Scheme, and using Skins. However, because Microsoft allows developers to spruce things up they way they want to, many developers have created their own versions with added functionalities that are downloadable via add-ons.

Check out Patchou.com which offers a Messenger Plus! Extension that adds the ability to log instant messages, customize your user interface and even add parental watch to monitor suspicious activities. There is also another program which allows you to run more than one copy of MSN Messenger on your machine and many accounts simultaneously – suitably called MSN/Window Messenger Polygamy.

One of the best additions I’ve seen is Messenger Bot – Fonix 2.6 from Fonixbot.tripod.com. With this add-on you can set different away messages for different people, keep logs of away messages while you’re gone, keep a history log telling you everything that happened from what time you log on to log off with such details as when your friends logged on / off, messaged you, etc.

There are a number of sites such as MSNFanatic.com where you can download many of these add-ons, learn tips and all sorts of other neat stuff to really make your MSN, a typical bland-looking Microsoft product more exciting.

A tip you can already do without downloading anything else is this: I notice a trick a lot of people use is to change their nick on MSN so that they have a different one everyday – reflecting their mood for that particular moment. It reminds me a lot of Yahoo IM’s ability to change “Status Messages”, which should normally contain messages like “Out to lunch” or “Not at my desk”. Instead, I see messages like “Basta Webmaster, Sweet Lover” (like those ultra-cheesy stickers found on jeepneys and tricycles), “Hot HOt HOT”, ““, lyrics to popular songs and such.

These things may seem minor, but frankly the ability to use your creativity to make your presence just a little bit funnier and more personal is really cool. The message you place there is broadcasted all over to your friends lists, and replacing the the staid, old “Be Right Back” with something more exciting adds loads more fun.

Some bad stuff

There are some features that can stand some improvement though.

MSN doesn’t save chat sessions automatically, a feature that is standard operating procedure in ICQ. If a chat session is important to you, you will have to remind yourself to save it as a text file as soon as you’re finished. This can be difficult to do of course as it’s so very easy to just press once finished chatting, quickly and permanently deleting your conversation.

Also, although you can make as many friend lists as you like, there is no feature that allows you to toggle only online friends, and will show all your pals at the same time whether they’re online or not. I have a fairly large number of MSN friends and trying to manage a large list can be a pain.

As a part of their service, MSN allows you to right-click a friend on your list to check his profile. This launches your browser to Hotmail’s directory, containing details such as Gender, Age, Location and a picture if provided. This is ok and reminds me of Yahoo’s Profiles, however the page really looks kind of boring, and in some cases refuses to load properly. There were times when my browser tried to load a page, ending in an error window with a longish description that didn’t really make it clear whether the person has made their directory private or it was a real error.

Finally, searching for a friend is limited to Hotmail Directory Search, which limits your chances of finding someone a great deal. If he or she is not a Hotmail member, then tough luck, you will have to use some other non-MS way to find them.

Some Really Bad Stuff

As I said before when reviewing Yahoo IM, I really liked Yahoo’s MyYahoo, which to me remains to be one of the easiest to configure and earliest examples of an online content provider providing personalized content. In one webpage, you get dynamic content of your choice, ranging from Comics, Entertainment News, World News, Sports, Finance as well as your Email, Calendar and other essentials.

With MSN having a similar goal, I looked forward to configuring something that would again do the same thing for me and finally comparing the two, with MSN Messenger as the means of delivery instead of Yahoo IM.

Unfortunately, my attempts were thwarted when a rather serious stumbling block stood in my way. MSN does not provide personalized content for the Philippines, and doesn’t provide a suitable alternative. A number of neighbouring Asian countries were present, but unfortunately they would provide information in Chinese. American alternatives on the other hand were categorized by US Zip Codes, and as I wasn’t versed in any I just sat there scratching my head, wondering what to do.

In the end I just gave up trying to configure MyMSN, and consequently avoid even looking at it. At the moment it seems to be configured for Singaporean content by default, which as of this writing had banners promoting a concert in their city as well as weather information. Although I’m sure the Lion City is a beautiful and highly sophisticated place, I want to know what stuff is going on in Manila, or at the very least provide me generic World Headlines. I’m rather disappointed it couldn’t do this.

On a lighter note, I tried using the general chatrooms at MSN, and again the situation was similar. It only allows you to search a chatroom by City, which of course, meant US Cities. Clicking “Worldwide Sites” didn’t help as there were no Philippines there as well. There were tens of other Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic ones, but no Philippines. Yahoo chat has no less than three chatrooms in Tagalog. A good indication as any that there are quite a few Filipino chatters. Unfortunately, MSN isn’t the venue for us.

Another somewhat more serious situation is Hotmail. My Hotmail account is 5 or so years old now, and I enjoyed the idea of knowing whenever I received an email on my desktop ever since I started using MSN Messenger way back with version 3.0. However because of spam, Hotmail has seriously degraded as a usable service in the past 3 years or so, and no amount of tweaking it’s “anti-spam” features produced better results. This is quite a shame.

Hotmail had also suffered some serious security lapses in the past, including hacker, DOS and some general security attacks. For these reasons I do not use Hotmail as my main email address, and not even as a realistic alternative to it. I only use Hotmail occasionally now, and probably if it weren’t for MSN’s ability to inform me when I receive mail, as well as the fact that many old contacts who’ve gone off to the US only know me by that email, I’d had dropped it long ago.

The future

A series of court and out-of-court situations last year with Microsoft and AOL-Time Warner, owner of AOL and ICQ, have proven one thing. Microsoft is serious about pursuing the Instant Messenger market, for reasons I now hopefully have made clear.

AOL with it’s AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ continue to have a firm lock on many of the early and current IM users, purely because they were in earlier than most. Microsoft has been well known to adopt a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to choosing what technologies to invest in, and this case is no different.

When it became clear that the IM market was important, Microsoft made its move, one of which was to become part of an alliance to try and establish a common IM protocol, one that allows all IMs to share it’s users with everyone else.

No doubt once established, Microsoft will then unleash the same winning moves it had done previously with their operating systems and of course, Internet Explorer. Microsoft will provide an alternative that no one can resist. MSN provides reliable technology performing popular IM tasks, along with widespread use and even developer support as well. This along with their .Net strategy, will almost surely provide a clear road to even further dominance and control of the IM market.

However AIM is stubbornly in their way, and is no pushover by a long shot. Time and again others have tried to access AOL’s users, with AOL sidestepping every attempt so far. Backed up by information provider powerhouse Time-Warner, AOL will not just lie down and let them. Will we need only one IM in the future, we’ll probably know the answer to that within 5 years.

Conclusion

MSN Messenger is a strong Instant Messenger, much as one would say that Outlook Express is a capable email client and Internet Explorer is a good browser. They’re all reliable and have excellent features, but kind of stop short at being spectacular.

For an internet newbie, starting out with MSN is a good way to go. Again all Microsoft products are easy to install, configure and use. They also provide tons of support and people have gotten quite used to this and expect the same level of ability from the company on a consistent basis.

For the veteran who’s already using any of the others (ICQ, Yahoo or AIM), however, MSN Messenger doesn’t really present a strong argument that would make one give the others up. Instead, I expect people would do as I do – maintain them all, and use them as needed. If a certain friend prefers one, I have it. We can use Yaho

I would use Yahoo or MSN to do voice chat or even webcam conversations, and use ICQ’s file-sharing capability to share a files among users. I’ll use Yahoo’s chatrooms to chat with Pinoys all over the globe, but if someone wants to email me quick I’ll ask them to send it to my Hotmail account so that MSN can inform me once it’s in.

Clearly, in order to win the IM wars, Microsoft has to fight a battle a corporate battle, and not one at the application-level. In case Microsoft eventually does win it the way it has with Internet Explorer, and I would no choice but to use MSN Messenger, it is already a capable IM and I wouldn’t mind that very much.

Next Month:
Go Go Odigo!

Links:
Exchange Server Support
http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/downloads/2000/imclient.asp

MSN Messenger Home
http://messenger.msn.com/

MSN Messenger Download Page
http://messenger.msn.com/download/download.asp?client=1

MSN Home
http://www.msn.com

MSNFanatic.com
http://www.msnfanatic.com/

FonixBot
http://fonixbot.tripod.com/

MSN Polygamy
http://www.asdfuae.tk/

Patchou Messenger Plus! Extension
http://www.patchou.com/msgplus/