Commentary: Messenger Upgrade Best IM App Ever

Microsoft recently updated MSN Messenger, its consumer-oriented Instant Messaging (IM) client, to version 6.0, and virtually all Windows users will want to investigate this release. For whatever reason, Apple Computer's recent iChat AV beta release--another IM application that uses the same underlying technology as MSN Messenger--has gotten all the press, but MSN Messenger 6.0 is the superior program, offering far more functionality than simple chatting and a much more customizable UI. Here's what's new and exciting in MSN Messenger 6.0, the .NET application that's likely to garner more market share than any other.

Based on .NET Like previous versions of MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger (the latter of which Microsoft is now recasting as an enterprise-oriented IM client), MSN Messenger 6.0 is based on .NET technologies such as .NET Passport, which it uses for logon and authentication purposes; MSN Alerts, through which you can get local traffic, weather, sports, travel, and other notifications; and the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a standards-based communications protocol that Microsoft helped develop. This description of MSN Messenger's underpinnings illustrates that the technology behind MSN Messenger is, arguably, the most advanced and feature-rich of any IM platform. Like previous MSN Messenger versions, MSN Messenger 6.0 supports Hotmail integration, so the client can alert you when you've received new email. A primary difference between MSN Messenger 6.0 and previous versions, however, is that MSN Messenger 6.0 automatically navigates the often complex interaction between your local network and the Internet. Previous versions of MSN Messenger (and Windows Messenger) often had problems providing certain services over certain firewall configurations. So, for example, some users couldn't transfer files, and troubleshooting those situations was often impossible. MSN Messenger 6.0 handles these tasks with ease: If users on both ends are running MSN Messenger 6.0, everything will work every time. Not bad.

Simple Presence Functionality One feature the various MSN Messenger versions have always offered is presence information. Users who have you in their contacts list know when you're online, and vice versa. What's missing, of course, is true presence information--your physical location and how you're connected to the Internet, for example. Microsoft is working to add this functionality to future IM products, including those that run on PDAs, cell phones, and other devices. A related feature lets Tablet PC owners use MSN Messenger 6.0 to send digital-ink messages: Rather than forcing these users to download a different edition of MSN Messenger 6.0, the available version auto-detects the underlying hardware and acts accordingly. (The first available Tablet PCs required users to download special versions of applications to get ink capabilities.) As Microsoft's IM programs improve over time, they'll not only sense the underlying capabilities of the system you're using but also the systems your contacts are using. So, if you try to send a large file to a user on a cell phone, the system will be smart enough to tell you that the transmission isn't possible and will offer options such as email, or perhaps a delayed file shipment that the system will deliver when the recipient logs on to a PC.

Text Messaging Like previous MSN Messenger versions, MSN Messenger 6.0 supports standard text-based chatting with a wide range of new, animated emoticons and gives you the ability to make your own emoticons. (Assuming that you have the time, skill, and inclination to make your own emoticons, this feature is an interesting one.) What's new in this version is its logging capabilities, which let you record chat sessions to local files. The benefits of this feature are obvious: Most current chat programs don't save transcripts, forcing you to remember what was discussed or use manual cut-and-paste techniques. This feature requires Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 6.0.

Audio Chat and Video Chat MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger have supported audio chat for some time, and the capabilities in MSN Messenger 6.0 are similar to the audio-chat features of those products. If you have a microphone, you can chat vocally with users around the world; if you have speakers, you can listen in as well, even if you choose not to speak. Video chat in MSN Messenger 6.0 is also similar to previous versions, although it no longer requires an add-on program; however, video chat isn't natively supported out of the box. Virtually any Windows-compatible WebCam should work in MSN Messenger 6.0.

Personalizable UI One of the cooler new aspects of MSN Messenger 6.0 is that its UI is malleable. You can use and create the aforementioned emoticons, load and share custom background images for your chat windows, display a custom photo that identifies you to others, and customize your display name. One feature MSN Messenger still lacks is the ability to customize how other people's names appear in your contacts list. Some of the people I chat with use insanely long names that change on almost a daily basis: I wish I could just set the name to Bob or whatever and be done with it.

Play Online Games One feature that's always set MSN Messenger apart from the competition is its integration with Microsoft's online games. In MSN Messenger 6.0, the company has created a new Launch Site that helps MSN Messenger users play games together, share photos, and perform other activities, in real time. Microsoft says it will regularly update the Launch Site with new games and other features. Additionally, Microsoft is adding MSN Messenger support to its games and other products. For example, if you purchase Links, the company's golf game, MSN Messenger will include a new option that lets you invite contacts to a round of virtual golf (they must have Links installed, too). MSN Messenger 6.0 is available now for free download from the Microsoft Web site. It requires Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, or Windows 98, at least 64MB of RAM, and an 800 x 600 display. You'll need an Internet connection, of course, as well.