Instant Message

What Does Instant Message Mean?

An instant message (IM) is a real-time, text-based communication similar to chat. IM uses a shared software client between or among two or more people using personal computers, iPhones or other devices. The communication is done over a network, often the Internet, and may include advanced modes with live voice or video. File transfers are also sometimes allowed but are limited in size.


Although included in the online chat category of technologies, IM differs in that the communicating parties are selected from a known list, called a “buddy list,” “friend list” or “contact list.” Users are typically alerted when someone on their list is online. However, online chat allows communication in a multiuser environment among users that are usually anonymous.

Some IM systems permit messages to be sent when the recipient is not online. In these cases, IM is much like email; in fact, the message may even be sent to the recipient’s email address.

Techopedia Explains Instant Message

Instant messaging was actually used prior to the Internet. In the 1960s, multiuser operating systems like the Compatible Time-Sharing System and Multics sent notifications for services like printing; however, users quickly learned to communicate with others who were logged into the same printer or other devices. As networks, programming languages and protocols developed, bulletin board systems emerged in the 1980s, some of which even included chat features.

By 2000, running multiple software clients was no longer necessary for instant messaging. Protocols were being developed allowing Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol servers to act as gateways for multiprotocol clients.

There are many IM services available today, many of which are attached to social networking sites. However, each IM service offers its own proprietary software client as a separate program or as a browser-based program. Some services do allow limited function with other IM services, and there is some third-party software capable of connecting with major IM services.

There have been many attempts to create a common communication language protocol for the top IM service providers but most have failed, so each IM provider continues with its own proprietary language protocol. As a result, many IM networks cannot communicate with each other, which has caused the IM service providers to lose a significant amount of business.

Internet slang, text speak and shorthand emotional expressions are common over IM. Acronyms for common expressions such as “BRB” and “TTYL” (“be right back” and “talk to you later”) are frequently used along with emotional expressions and emoticons.


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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.