IM Beta Battle: AIM Vs. Yahoo! Messenger

Both AOL and Yahoo! have released betas of their new IM clients. But are these feature-laden applets an improvement?

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

June 6, 2005

6 Min Read

Instant messaging (IM) has become a fixture in any home with an adolescent -- and a new tool for inter- and intra-office communications. In this sharply competitive market, it is not surprising that each instant messaging client developer feels it has to get one up on the competition.

Both AOL (with AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM) and Yahoo! (with Yahoo! Messenger) have recently come out with new beta versions of their popular IM clients. We've taken a look at both of these to find out how much they've improved, and how they stack up against each other.

Yahoo! Messenger Beta

Yahoo! wants to take over your desktop. To that end the company has loaded its instant messaging client with features that have little to do with instant messaging. Like AOL and other big name vendors, it gives away the instant messaging software, but makes you pay by developing bloated programs.

After you download the beta and run the installation wizard, you are presented with several installation choices, including the Yahoo! toolbar, Yahoo! extras, and, oh yeah, the Yahoo! Messenger. There are also check boxes to make Yahoo! your home page and Yahoo! Mail your default mail client.

When you finally install the Messenger program (with any additional items you wish), you will notice that Yahoo! has chosen to leave the annoying Yahoo! Insider mini browser window on by default. You can only shut this off by accessing Preferences, but few people know this and it's an unnecessary distraction from the main instant messaging mission.

(It's important to note that this is beta software. I did run into stability issues where I was forced to shut down my computer, especially when accessing Preferences.)

I started the Messenger client and noticed immediately that Yahoo! has chosen a bold font by default for the sender message -- it startled my test recipient, who wanted to know why I was screaming at her. I was able to alter the font in Preferences, although the change wasn't immediately apparent until after I logged off and returned to the program later. One nice new feature is the ability to make yourself selectively available -- what Yahoo! calls Stealth Mode -- so that you appear online to some people and offline to others. Unfortunately, the offline choice did not work in the beta version of the software, but it is a feature with a lot of potential, especially as presence technology begins to drive other messaging systems in the enterprise arena.

The client includes the ability to send and receive computer-to-computer "phone calls" a la Skype, so you can talk to other Yahoo! Messenger users using a set of USB headphones. It's a neat idea and could catch on, although Skype has a head start in this regard. You can also make computer-to-phone calls (2 cents a minute for calls inside the U.S.) using a pay service provided by Net2Phone.

There are additional functions that have little to do with instant messages, including games, the ability to send photos, and lots of ways to customize your online personality. There is also an address book, a calendar, and lots of other stuff you probably won't use in your instant messaging client.

The new edition of Yahoo! Messenger piles on the features, but in the end, it's all just fluff. Most people won't pay attention to the extraneous functions and will continue to use it for the sole purpose of sending and receiving instant messages. Yahoo! should just stick with this focus and reduce the program bloat.

Yahoo! Messenger Beta
Yahoo! Inc.
Price: Free
Summary: The IM client does the job and provides a neat feature to make yourself selectively available (which is still a work in progress), but is loaded down with frivolous extras that divert from the main purpose of the program. AOL Instant Messenger Beta

Like Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger Beta tries to load a lot of power into a small client window. Although AOL keeps up in the new features arena, the presentation is less elegant than Yahoo!'s.

To start with, there is an advertisement running at the top of the window. This is not only annoying, but it takes up valuable real estate in the client window. Buddy names are more crowded and the font is more difficult to read than in Yahoo!, and you cannot selectively make yourself available as you can in the Yahoo! Messenger beta.

AOL presents you with a mini browser window offering content that they dub "AIM Today." This is supposed to present local information based on the zip code you enter during setup, but other than the weather, I didn't see anything obviously local in nature on the home page. What's more, they annoyed me further with a pop-up window displaying an ad for their new mail service.

The instant messaging window where you enter messages looks a lot like an e-mail form, including "To" and "From" fields at the top. The entry area is large enough to view several lines of text -- a nice touch, because it can be irritating if you can only see one line when you add text than that.

AOL includes such features as online radio and a Net2Phone computer-to-phone service similar to Yahoo!'s (but more expensive at 3.9 cents per minute for a domestic U.S. call). You can also turn on a news ticker or a customizable stock ticker detail window. Both of these features open in a separate window, which could make for a crowded desktop if you have the messenger, the mini browser, the stock ticker detail and the news ticker open all at the same time. You can also run a stock ticker in the client window, but since the client window is rather narrow, it is difficult to view this way.

In the end, AOL and Yahoo! suffer from trying to outdo one another. The client gets bogged down with unnecessary functions that most people won't use. Since these clients are free, the real purpose seems to be to be to build brand loyalty across a range of functions, but that has left us with programs that have lost their focus.

AOL Instant Messenger Beta
America Online, Inc.
Price: Free
Summary: The AOL message window provides a clean, clear way to send messages. Unfortunately, AOL has chosen to pack the IM client with unnecessary features, and even ads, making for an overcrowded interface.

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