Today, the instant messenger world is about where the email world was in the early 1990s. For those of you not around then, MCIMail became one of the first private email companies to connect to the Internet and offer the means to bridge incompatible systems. Then the flood started, and eventually the TCP/IP and POP worlds became the default and no one cared about proprietary systems.
Now Vint Cerf is with Google, and MCIMail (his former home and pet project) is largely forgotten. With the advent of Jabber-based XMPP messaging systems (here is a complete list), and with the work of Apple, IBM, and others, we are now seeing software that can connect multiple IM systems, although it still is pretty crude. The issue is more than just the protocol, you need federated identity between disparate systems to make this all work.
I looked at five products that are available on Windows clients (Google Talk, Gizmo Project, AIM, Skype and Trillian Pro), along with Apple’s iChat. Three of the Windows products are also available on other platforms. All do basic chat or text messages from person to person. Some offer audio and video conferencing features, whereby you can connect multiple people on the same line. Two offer the built-in ability to record your text chats and also record your audio conversations, which are useful for assembling podcasts. And two also offer voicemail systems, so when you are away from your computer you can still receive audio messages.
Just as we were with email in the early 1990s, there are three commercial IM systems that don’t really connect with each other: AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Then Trillian came along a few years ago and produced a single client that allowed you to chat with all three, along with ICQ. Then came Skype, which set things back as its own communications island, but moved chat into a features war with lots of enhancements, including voice conferencing and dial in/dial out features. And now we have all the jabbering Jabber clients, including Gizmo Project, which takes most of Skype’s features a step further but is notably missing file transfer.
Eventually, I will add more to this grid, but this should whet your appetite for what you can do. You can find the page here on my site