Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Alternatives to Instant Messaging

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about alternatives to instant messaging at work, what to look for in an inexpensive PC and using Macs to make trades.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.


My company has banned us from using instant-messaging programs on our work computers, claiming they are a security threat. Is there an alternative way for me to keep using instant messaging, which I consider a useful business tool?

Yes. You just have to use a service that replicates the functions of instant-messaging software inside a Web page. That way you aren’t downloading an instant-messaging program onto the company’s computer, you’re simply using the Web browser already on that computer.

I’ve recently seen a cool new Web service of this type called Meebo, at http://www.meebo.com. It’s only 11 weeks old, and it’s still in testing, but it enables users to sign into four different instant-messaging services — Time Warner’s America Online’s AIM (or ICQ); Microsoft’s MSN Messenger; Yahoo Messenger; and Google’s GTalk (or Jabber). You even can log on to all four simultaneously and see a combined buddy list. Meebo is basic and hasn’t yet added fancy features like file transfers, but it works well on Windows PCs and Macs. And, it’s very slick. You even can move the message and buddy-list windows around within the Web page.

If the Meebo site won’t come up on your company computer, try the secure version, at https://www.meebo.com. If your company blocks this, too, I suspect it just hates the idea of instant messaging at work for reasons that go beyond security.

How can you suggest that people consider buying a Macintosh now when Apple Computer will be coming out with all-new models based on Intel processors starting next year?

With any digital-technology product, the pace of change is so rapid that there is always a newer, supposedly better model on the horizon. But people buy these products when they need them. If you wait and wait, you lose the use of the new computer or other product in the meantime. And the next model may be flawed or otherwise unsuitable.

My recommendation last week of the best desktop computer on the market this holiday season, the Apple iMac G5, was meant for people who plan to buy a computer this holiday or within the next few months. Apple’s changeover will be gradual; there is no indication when the iMac G5 will be replaced by a Mac with an Intel processor. It could be as late as 2007, according to Apple’s public statements. There is no way to know if a future Intel-based model will be better or less expensive.

In addition, current Macs will remain highly useful for years even after the Intel models arrive. Makers of software and peripherals are highly unlikely to restrict their products to Intel-based Macs, which will be few in number compared with the tens of millions of Macs based on the current design. Apple has devised a system for creating software that runs on both designs.

I would like to purchase a PC for my mother but do not have much money to spend. All she uses it for is email really. But I think if she had decent processing speed, she’d surf the Internet more. What PC would you recommend that is the least expensive, works with wireless Internet technology, and has decent processing speed?

The least expensive PCs are bargain-basement Windows desktop models. I haven’t tested these machines lately, but almost any of the sub-$500 desktop models should do the trick for these simple uses. You likely will have to pay extra for wireless Internet connectivity, since most desktop computers — even costly ones — don’t come with that feature, which is meant mainly for laptops. Also, make sure your bargain model has security software, a CD drive, and speakers — some don’t. You may have to add those features at extra cost.

As for “decent processing speed,” your implication that fast processors are needed for Web surfing is just plain wrong. The slowest processor on the computer-store shelf is more than powerful enough to handle Web browsing. If you have any extra money to spend in your tight budget, don’t spend it on a faster processor. Instead, make sure the memory is at least 256 megabytes, or 512 if you can afford it. That will have a bigger effect on Web performance.

In your favorable review of the new Apple iMac G5 computer last week, you said it may be the wrong choice for day traders. Why? Are Mac owners unable to trade stocks?

Although I believe Apple’s Macintosh computers and its Tiger operating system are superior to Windows computers today for mainstream consumers and small businesses, I have long advised that there are some niche groups for whom Windows is still the best choice. This is mainly because the Mac can’t compete with Windows for cutting-edge games and niche software.

The biggest examples of people who should stick with Windows are heavy-duty game players, or users who rely on specialized Windows software provided by their employers. I mentioned day traders in this list, because heavy traders sometimes rely on special software available only for Windows, or on Web sites that work best in Windows.

But I was speaking only about the most intense, full-time, stock traders. You certainly can buy and sell stocks on a Macintosh, using the popular Mac Web browsers, and many people do.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.


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