Instant messaging is one of the simple pleasures of the Internet. You just type and send, and your online buddy has your message in an instant.
But now, many of the major instant-messaging services are making things more complicated by piling on audio and video chats, games, photo sharing, animated greetings, Internet radio channels and more. Also, some of the latest messaging programs include advertising.
Although some of the add-on features are useful or just plain fun, others seem superfluous - the online equivalent of putting too much furniture in a room - and some don't even work well.
Ultimately, the instant-messaging service that's best for you is the one most of your friends and contacts use, regardless of the bells and whistles. That said, here's a comparison of the major services and their latest offerings:
AIM - America Online's instant-messaging service was a pioneer and remains dominant in the field.
You don't have to be an AOL subscriber to use it; the Windows and Macintosh versions of the software can be downloaded at aim.com.
The latest version of the service, AIM Triton (available only for Windows), ventures into true video chat, dispensing with fuzzy images and jerky motion and meeting the standard set by iChat in 2003. (MSN Messenger also now features high-quality video.)
For me, the problem with Triton video was getting it to work. It took more than an hour to set up my first video chat. Each subsequent chat was easier to accomplish but still not trouble-free.
Also annoying were the advertisements that AIM runs at the top of the buddy list or inside the chat boxes. You can choose where they appear, but you can't get rid of them entirely.
But the new text-to-cell-phone feature was welcome. Even if a contact is not signed on to AIM, you can send a message to his or her mobile phone.
iChat - Apple Computer's service, which is included in the current versions of the Macintosh operating system, debuted its video chat for home users in 2003. It has never been bested.
Its clean interface enables users to exchange instant messages with AIM users as well as with other iChat users. The two services produce a combined buddy list.
Apple has not added many frills to iChat over the years, but what it does - text, voice and video chat - it does beautifully. And there are no ads.
Meebo - This service (mee bo.com) goes beyond the AIM/iChat combined buddy list by also including contacts who use the instant-messaging networks of MSN, Yahoo and other providers. It's one-stop shopping. You can do all your messaging from one Web-based list without opening a bunch of different programs.
The main problem at the moment is that you must keep the full Meebo page open for the service to work - you can't separate out the list. Right now, it's more awkward to use than multiple messaging windows.
Also, if you do like video, audio and other extra features, you can't access them from Meebo.
MSN Messenger - The latest version of this Microsoft service adds frills to instant messaging, including little animations.
Several games can be played with a messaging partner, but some of the fun is lost to online delays in updating the game board.
The video chat sported a good, fluid image, but setting it up was a nightmare.
The service can be downloaded from join.msn.com/messenger/overview. The Macintosh version does not offer the advanced video, games and other features but retains a user-friendly interface.
Yahoo Messenger - Yahoo had the smoothest setup and most trouble-free operation when it came to new features.
Only minutes after downloading the most recent version, called Yahoo Messenger With Voice, at messenger.yahoo.com, I was trying out the games with a chat partner, listening to a variety of Internet radio music channels, sending text-to-phone messages, having audio chats and sharing photos. In particular, the photo-sharing feature - which enabled us to drop and drag several pictures into the chat box for transmission - worked effortlessly.
Yahoo's new "super" video chat mode was a big disappointment, however. It looked good only when the video window was postage-stamp-sized.
The games worked great, to the point of being addictive.
David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.