Don’t Tell Your Boss, But There Is a Way to IM Despite Blocks

Does your company stop you from downloading instant-messaging software in an effort to keep you from wasting precious time? Well, there’s a way to get around company barriers so you can chat away with family and friends.

Just use an Internet-based service so that you can chat from a Web page without having to install any software, which might be blocked by a firewall. I tested two such services: Meebo at www.meebo.com and KoolIM at www.koolim.com. Both are free.

These services let you simultaneously log in to multiple IM accounts — and communicate with people with various services. If you have a friend who uses Yahoo Messenger, for example, and another who likes MSN Messenger, you can chat with either.

Another plus: Meebo and KoolIM are far less vulnerable to viruses than downloadable applications. They’re also more efficient, saving users the hassle of installing multiple programs on a computer. This is especially handy for people with old computers that slow down when running several applications.

Meebo has a well-designed, sleek interface that makes it appealing to even the least tech savvy. From its home page, you simply sign in for different IM services—MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, GTalk (or Jabber) and AIM (or ICQ). Your buddy list will be combined automatically. You don’t have to register, but if you do, you get perks such as a single sign-on for all of your accounts, and the ability to share files, save chat logs and store conversations.

I tried Meebo on my work Windows PC and my iBook at home, and it worked well on both. To start chatting, you just log in to any of the IM services by entering the screen name and password you already have with a service, or by picking a new name, password and services. Your buddy list will appear in a window on the right side of the page, with each name marked by an icon denoting the service the person uses. Once in your buddy list, you can add or delete a contact, message or join a group chat.

The service also offers MeeboMe, a way to chat from your own Web site. Bloggers can use this to start a conversation with site visitors who log in to their Meebo account. It also shows how many users are on the site at any time.

But Meebo, like most such Web services, lacks the ability for audio and video chats — basic features on installed IM software. If you’re used to plugging in a Webcam and headgear to chat with friends, these services might not be for you. Meebo also doesn’t have the standard send button that’s on installed IM software. Instead, you press a key on your keyboard.

Sharing files using Meebo is tricky, too. Only Meebo account holders can send files; although anyone can receive them. When I sent a PDF file to my friend on her installed MSN Messenger, she received a message and a link that rerouted her to Meebo’s home page with no further guidance. When I sent her the same file after she logged in to her MSN using Meebo, she could open the file.

KoolIM also connects users to multiple IM accounts from one Web page. It gives you the option to create an online account, so you don’t need separate log-ins for each IM service you’ll encounter.

You can select an embedded or a pop-up version of the service. The embedded version shows your buddy list and messages as windows tied to a Web page, while the pop-up version lets you move the windows around the screen. You can choose to display all of your buddies or only the ones online. In your buddy-list window you can add and delete names and log in to or out of a service.

I didn’t like having text ads appear at the bottom of the IM window in KoolIM, or the fact that, unlike Meebo, there isn’t a time stamp on messages to tell you when they arrived. It also doesn’t allow you to send files, as Meebo does. And it doesn’t let you save conversations or chat logs. KoolIM’s lack of some of these basic features might make it less appealing to consumers, especially those who ponder swapping it with their desktop software.

I preferred Meebo, but both services are good alternatives to installed IM, if you’re willing to do without audio and video features.

Walt Mossberg is on vacation. Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.


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